In the midst of the onslaught of multilateral and bilateral sanctions levied against North Korea there is concern that the spillover effects could significantly hamper humanitarian aid projects. The aim of the various North Korea sanctions regimes is to pressure the Pyongyang government to change its behavior, not to inflict greater hardship on the North Korean people. To this end there are exceptions in all of the recent sanctions measures to allow for humanitarian assistance.
(1) Activities to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in North Korea, including drought and flood relief; food, nutrition, and medicine distribution; the provision of health services; assistance for individuals with disabilities; and environmental programs;
(2) Activities to support democracy building in North Korea, including rule of law, citizen participation, government accountability, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to information, and civil society development projects;
(3) Activities to support education in North Korea, including combating illiteracy, increasing access to education, international exchanges, and assisting education reform projects; and
(4) Activities to support non-commercial development projects directly benefiting the North Korean people, including preventing infectious disease and promoting maternal/child health, sustainable agriculture, and clean water assistance.
(5) Activities to support environmental protection, including the preservation and protection of threatened or endangered species and the remediation of pollution or other environmental damage.
Yet, concerns that sanctions may prevent or hinder the provision of humanitarian assistance are not unfounded. A few weeks ago the Eugene Bell Foundation, which has a long history of providing Tuberculosis medicine to North Korea, protested the South Korean government’s torpid response to its request to continue shipments into the DPRK. As part of South Korean measures in response to Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and missile provocations Seoul enacted new sanctions on ships that have docked at a North Korean port within the previous 180 days. South Korea does not have a specific policy banning humanitarian assistance but requires that these shipments be approved on a case by case basis. The Ministry of Unification ultimately approved the Eugene Bell Foundation’s shipment but not before raising concerns that in this new sanctions climate the work of humanitarian aid organizations could be significantly hindered whether due to political or bureaucratic reasons.
NGOs, businesses, and multi-lateral development organizations have long lamented the burdens that financial sanctions have placed on their activities in North Korea. Because banks are now averse to any dealing with North Korean accounts, foreigners in Pyongyang—no matter who they are affiliated with—generally must operate entirely in cash. This entails an additional logistical burden for these organizations and raises concerns that they may find their accounts frozen and themselves shut out from the international banking system.
Given the strength of the latest round of sanctions on North Korea it is still unclear how severely the damage will be felt on the North Korean economy and as we’ve argued before much of it boils down to enforcement, especially from the Chinese. It is not always obvious what constitutes humanitarian assistance or which products should be permitted for export to North Korea for humanitarian reasons even on market terms. According to a recent Daily NK article there are reports that China has been clamping down on flour shipments to the DPRK. It’s unclear the reason behind this move, and flour is not a staple in North Korea, but the story underscores the immense power China wields on North Korea as its principle trading partner. The signals China sends in restricting one product could have spillover effects leading to price increases elsewhere. In this new super-sanctioned environment, it’s still unknown what the spillovers may be but we should continue to monitor the food situation in particular to ensure that overzealous sanctions enforcement doesn’t contribute to a food crisis.
We give no free pass to the DPRK government, which clearly has the power and responsibility to make decisions to improve the well-being of its own citizens. Yet, strict enforcement of sanctions on the Kim regime should not impede the legitimate work of humanitarian organizations and we join other organizations in calling on government agencies to minimize bureaucratic hurdles that hinder groups like the Eugene Bell Foundation from carrying out their work in North Korea.