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The Peninsula

Prospects for U.S. Humanitarian Aid to North Korea in the COVID Era

Published February 3, 2021
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

By Robert R. King

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service a few days ago published a working paper updating and reassessing international food security in the decade 2020-2030 in light of the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The report focuses on 76 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin American which are most likely to have difficulties providing food for their population.  The report concludes that the economic impact of the pandemic will result in significantly increased food insecurity in all 76 countries because of the global economic shrinkage resulting from COVID-19.  The result is an estimated 921 million people are food insecure in these 76 countries.  For North Korea, the new estimate of the number of seriously food insecure people was calculated to be 1,046,000.

Even before the impact on the world economy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) concluded that 11 million of North Korea’s 25 million people were undernourished in 2019, and 1 out of every 5 children in the country are stunted as the result of inadequate food.  The WFP concluded that “agriculture annually falls short of meeting food needs, due to shortages of arable land, lack of access to modern agricultural equipment and fertilizers, and recurrent natural disasters.”  The natural problems include droughts, floods, typhoons and heatwaves which every year continue to affect the country causing soil leeching, erosion, landslides and damage to crops and infrastructure.

The impact of COVID-19 on the precarious food situation in North Korea was raised by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights Tomás Ojea Quintana in a statement in June 2020.  He stated that “over 40 per cent of people were already food insecure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them suffering malnutrition and stunted growth.  Only one third of children aged 6 to 23 months received the minimum acceptable diet, and pregnant and lactating women were particularly affected by malnutrition.”  The Special Rapporteur said that an increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving.

Mr. Quintana also urged the UN Security Council “to reconsider sanctions, in light of the impact on the livelihoods of people and the Government’s capacity to respond.”  He also called on the Pyongyang government to lift restrictions on individuals associated with international organizations, governments, and private humanitarian organizations in order for them to assess and assure proper distribution of food assistance.

In a recent article, Hazel Smith, Professorial Research Associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and a well-regarded North Korea specialist asked, “Is North Korea on the Brink of Starvation?”  While clearly placing primary responsibility for feeding the North Korea people upon the North Korean government, she also suggests “a limited lifting of United Nations sanctions to allow for the resuscitation of food production in 2021.”

Senior Biden Administration Officials Suggest  Possible Humanitarian Aid for North Korea

Last November, three members of the South Korean National Assembly met with Kurt Campbell, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific in the Obama administration.  Their visit to the United States came shortly after the recent U.S. presidential election.  Campbell told the visiting parliamentarians, “Sending a message to North Korea to be patient through humanitarian assistance is a good idea,” Campbell was quoted as telling the South Korean lawmakers.  He also said that then President-elect Joe Biden may support humanitarian aid, adding “such an approach may also be a chance to further strengthen the joint efforts of South Korea and the United States.”  Campbell’s comments in November comments carry greater weight because he was shortly afterward named principal White House advisor on Asia issues on President Biden National Security Council Staff.

That same message was also given by the newly installed Secretary of State Tony Blinken during his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  He told the senators that the incoming administration planned a full review of the US approach to North Korea to look at ways to increase pressure to bring the North to the negotiating table on its nuclear weapons.  But at the same time, Secretary Blinken said the United States would also look at providing humanitarian aid to North Korea if needed.  “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation,” he told the Senators.

The Requirement to Monitor Humanitarian Aid Distribution

The major obstacle to the United States providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea in this era of a global pandemic is the U.S. legal requirement to monitor the distribution of assistance and North Korea’s rigorous restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The principal Congressional concern with regard to providing humanitarian assistance to the North remains making certain that distribution of aid is monitored so the United States is assured that the aid is reaching those individuals most in need of help and not being diverted for military purposes or to benefit the elite.  This was one of key concerns with the adoption of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 and its subsequent extensions.

Even under the best of circumstances North Korea has been reluctant to permit monitoring humanitarian assistance delivery.  This was true when the United States provided aid to the North in 2008-2009, and this issue was a point of contention when I negotiated with North Korean officials on possible food assistance in 2011-2012.  We were unable to provide aid at that time because North Korea resumed testing long-range missiles.

The United States’ North Korea Human Rights Act, adopted in 2004 and extended periodically since then, reflected Congressional concerns about proper monitoring of the distribution of humanitarian aid.  The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee affirmed that decisions to provide humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people should be made on humanitarian grounds, separate from political and strategic considerations.”  But the House also insisted that “there must be means to ensure that humanitarian assistance is used for humanitarian purposes, and is not diverted to military or political use.”

In the past Korean-speaking monitors were prohibited, and in later negotiations the number of Korean-speakers was limited.  The North wanted four-day advance notice for conducting visits to aid distribution sites, while standard practice in most other areas is that no advance notice or only a few hours’ notice is given.  Even with these difficult constraints, the United States was able to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

COVID-19 Restrictions Make Provision of Aid Even More Difficult

Restrictions imposed by the North Korean government to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have made it almost impossible to meet U.S. legal requirements to monitor the distribution of aid.  North Korea maintains some of the strictest regulations in the world to prevent the virus from coming into the country.

North Korea has repeatedly claimed that it has no cases of COVID-19, and the government has reported to international health organizations that no residents of the country have been found with the virus.  Some non-official reports, however, suggest that confidential party lectures said that in April 2020 three areas of North Korea, including Pyongyang, had seen outbreaks.  The fragility of the country’s healthcare system would make it particularly volatile and dangerous if an outbreak were to occur.  The strict measures imposed to prevent infected individuals from entering the country indicate the seriousness with which the virus is being treated.

Several reports indicate how stringently the COVID restrictions are being enforced.  A North Korean border official was reportedly executed for failing to observe the restrictions.  A North Korean who defected from the North and went to South Korea three years ago decided to return to the North and crossed back into the Northern border city of Kaesong.  When this breach was discovered, the city was put under “maximum emergency system” quarantine, although South Korea which closely monitors and traces all COVID cases declared that the man was not infected with the virus and had not had contact with any infected individual.  North Korea has also refused to accept back its own citizens who fled illegally to China, where they were captured by Chinese border officials.  Despite North Korea’s strict policies against leaving the country without official permission, the North has refused to accept the return of the illegal border crossers from China.

The restrictions imposed by the DPRK include limitations on goods coming into the country as well as people.  In the last four years, 95 percent of North Korea’s merchandise trade has come from or through China, and trade with China has dropped precipitously.  In the first quarter of 2020, exports to China dropped by 79 percent from the same period a year earlier, and imports dropped by 53 percent.  Trade between the two countries continued to decline throughout 2020.  South Korean intelligence sources report that North Korea even refused to accept delivery of 110,000 tons of rice from China because of fears that COVID-19 could enter the country through that shipment.

Kim Jong-un has been particularly insistent that draconian measures be taken to prevent the virus from spreading to the North.  In the Supreme Leader’s speech to the party Politburo in August 2020, he discussed efforts to deal with serious flooding that had just occurred due to a typhoon.  Even in that crisis, he gave priority to anti-COVID measures:  “The reality that the spread of the malignant virus is worsened worldwide calls for disallowing any external assistance concerning the flood damages and more tightly closing the border and strictly doing the anti-epidemic work.  Good education should be given so that the inhabitants of the affected areas and those involved in the campaign for recovery from damages cannot violate the anti-epidemic regulations.”

Humanitarian food and medical assistance is much needed in the North, and it could be a useful step as the Biden administration seeks to engage with North Korea.  Two issues will make it extremely difficult, however.  First, paranoia about COVID-19 could well make Kim Jong-un unwilling to permit the kind of on the ground monitoring that would be necessary to meet legal requirements.  Without such monitoring, it will be difficult to get Congressional support necessity to carry out an assistance program.

A second legal requirement in U.S. law is that humanitarian aid be given without political strings attached.  Assistance is to be given based on need, the ability to monitor delivery, and the net availability of funding to meet demand for assistance in all countries in need.  Humanitarian assistance cannot be a quid-pro-quo for nuclear negotiations.  Aid must be based on need, not politics.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from the U.S. Department of State’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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