Hunger Looms Over North Korea in Face of International Sanctions

People work in corn fields, Wednesday, June 24, 2015 in South Hwanghae, North Korea. North Korea may be facing a poor harvest and possible food shortages due to unusually light rainfall in some parts of the country so far this year. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

North Korean farmers harvest a delicious meal of weeds and dirt. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

North Korea has been under sanctions from the United States and from the United Nations for decades but has laughed and kicked its way along. China, Russia, and many other nations, happily employed North Korean laborers and turned a blind eye to sanctions busting by North Korean owned entities. Under President Trump, though, that has changed. Not only have more people and organizations been sanctioned but actual political pressure has been put on offending nations to obey the sanctions. Now the sanctions are biting hard. And the people paying the price are the North Korean people.


About 70 percent of the North Korean population is already categorized as “food insecure,” meaning constantly struggling against hunger, and growth stunting occurs in 1 in 4 children.

The sanctions could increase the levels of food insecurity and the incidence of acute malnutrition among children.

(Note here: I have no confidence in this number. You don’t do public opinion polling in North Korea. You don’t get to do actual measurements of children. And we don’t know what “food insecurity” even means in the context of the study that came up with that number. But I will stipulate that it sucks to be in North Korea.)

The U.N. World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the U.N. Development Program all have operations in North Korea. A small number of humanitarian agencies based in the United States and elsewhere provide food, medicines and agricultural assistance from bases outside the country.

But the waves of multilateral and direct U.S. sanctions that have been imposed on Kim Jong Un’s regime following its missile launches and nuclear tests have now made operations so difficult that some agencies are pulling out. Save the Children has shut down its operations in Pyongyang, billing the move as a “temporary suspension.”

The difficulties have mounted as the crackdown has broadened, from “smart sanctions” designed to cut off parts and funding for the nuclear weapons program to more general measures that are starting to look like a trade embargo.

President Trump has vowed to use “maximum pressure” to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Sanctions imposed in September through the Security Council, at the United States’ instigation, banned North Korean exports of seafood, garments and coal, adding to previous prohibitions on commodities.

Japan, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, is urging other member states to cut off humanitarian aid to North Korea.

The campaign is having a tangible impact.

The British government announced that it would no longer send assistance to North Korea. “We will use whatever means we have to make clear our displeasure at the reckless provocations from Kim Jong Un,” Mark Field, the British minister of state for Asia, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency in Seoul last month.

The South Korean government, which has vowed not to let political considerations affect humanitarian decisions, has not delivered on its September pledge to give $8 million to the World Food Program and UNICEF for children and pregnant women.

Items that had been blocked included anesthesia machines used for emergency operations and digital X-ray machines needed to diagnose tuberculosis.

American aid agencies must get licenses from the Commerce or Treasury departments to send goods needed for their work into North Korea and now are required to get special dispensation to airfreight time-sensitive equipment, such as medical supplies, because Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, is under sanction.

“It’s all very tricky and new for us,” said one American humanitarian worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because sensitive negotiations were ongoing. “It’s been weeks and months of back-and-forth and talking to lawyers. It’s very complex and challenging, but if we don’t do it, we can’t continue.”

Chinese customs officials are also cracking down on shipments to North Korea — and to a surprising extent, given Beijing’s previous halfhearted implementation of international sanctions.

They have become stricter about shipments, asking for detailed inventories, including lists of manufacturers’ names and materials used in every item. A container of wheelchairs sent by a South Korean aid agency was blocked by China, as were water purification tablets meant for flood victims, according to people with knowledge of the incidents.

[ Retired military leaders urge Trump to choose words, not action, to deal with North Korea ]

A Pyongyang-based humanitarian worker said there were also “self-imposed sanctions” by suppliers in China.

“Chinese suppliers who had been sending us raw materials we need for our projects have just suddenly disappeared,” the worker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize the humanitarian work. “They’re not doing anything that’s banned by sanctions, but they seem to have decided that it’s not worth the exposure or the risk to their reputations.”

Meanwhile, Chinese banks are refusing to handle any money related to North Korea, say humanitarian workers who are trying to wire money to Chinese suppliers of medical equipment for use inside North Korea — even when the supplier is Chinese-owned.


The article notes that major construction projects continue apace but humanitarian aid, aid that kept the North Korean people from starving and kept the government afloat, is drying up.

When you go back to the 70% food insecure number, something else becomes obvious. North Korea divides its citizens into three major classes: loyal (25%), wavering (50%), and hostile (25%). This class identification is inherited and follows you for life. Everything, from jobs to food to education to marriage opportunities is covered by your class designation. A safe bet is that right now the “food insecure” population is anyone outside the “loyal” class. As humanitarian aid dries up, that food insecurity is going to start biting the lower rungs of the loyal class.

The other takeaways from this are that South Korea is getting with the program. Japan is pushing hard. And Chinese financial entities are afraid of being sanctioned and are backing out of previous arrangements.

At a U.N. Security Council meeting Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that it was the responsibility of the North Korean regime to care for its own people.

“The regime could feed and care for women, children and ordinary people of North Korea if it chose the welfare of its people over weapons development,” Tillerson said.

“It can reverse course, give up its unlawful nuclear weapons program, and join the community of nations, or it can continue to condemn its people to poverty and isolation,” he said.


I really hope he makes this stick. This article is just part of a campaign by either well-intentioned aid organizations or North Korean tools to try to ratchet up the pressure on the US and UN to relent on sanctions. They are going to use sick, starving, and dying children as the tool. This is the same strategy used by Saddam Hussein and, thanks to the efforts of international aid organizations, President Bush was left with the choice of seeing sanctions fold or going to war.

As a rule, I’m not in favor of harming civilians who are trying to mind their own business. North Korea is an exception. The regime is secure, the people cowed. While it is unfortunate that they will suffer, when weighed against the cost of a war in Korea all you can really say is that it sucks to be them.

For the first time we really have a chance to break the North Korean regime. The senseless provocations of Kim Jong Un have created a perfect storm of international consensus. So long as the US and Japan don’t go wobbly here, there is a good chance this can be brought to a successful conclusion.


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