Sanctions and Starvation: A Humanitarian Crisis in North Korea

February 14, 2018

Unsurprisingly, North Korea has been making headlines again in recent weeks. What may come as a surprise, however, is fact that this time it is not an antagonizing Twitter outburst against North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un by President Trump, or a military parade displaying North Korean weaponry and aggression, that has thrust North Korea into the international spotlight. This time, it’s a humanitarian crisis facing the nation’s people, specifically its children, that has been garnering the nation additional – even if limited in comparison to its other newsworthy occurrences –  attention.


In a Reuters report published on January 30, 2018, the details of a UNICEF statement claiming that thousands of North Korean children were at risk of starvation due to international sanctions were released.  According to reports and commentary from Manuel Fontaine, director of global UNICEF emergency programs, “at some point during the year 60,000 children will become severely malnourished. This is the malnutrition that potentially can lead to death.” These staggering numbers, even more surprisingly, represent only the number of starving children suffering from lethal forms of “protein and calorie malnourishment.” The reality, however, is that roughly 200,000 North Korean children in total will face starvation and “acute malnutrition,” according to UNICEF estimates.


The reason for this starvation is a very complicated combination of North Korea’s neglect of its own people, coupled with sanctions against North Korea by the international community via United Nations resolutions and separate, newly implemented sanctions by the United States.  These international sanctions were implemented, of course, to counter the aggression inherent in North Korea’s proliferation of “nuclear and ballistic” weapons, according to the same Reuters

report by Stephanie Nebehay that revealed details of sanction-induced starvation of North Korean children. And it is precisely that sort of military proliferation, and Kim Jong-un’s budgetary prioritization of military expansion over the basic needs of his people, that have created this lack of food and sustenance for North Korea’s people, particularly their children. For instance, according to another U.N. report, North Korea has decreased food rations for its people just this year, despite the fact that such rations were already meager: less than a pound of food per person per day. Meanwhile, the funds saved from these reductions have been redirected toward North Korea’s growing military budget to which, as of 2015, 24 percent of the nation’s GDP is already devoted, according to a State Department report.


However, these sanctions are actually pursued by the international community primarily to stave off North Korean aggression and prevent further amassment of destructive nuclear weaponry, not necessarily to alter Jong-un’s neglect of his people. In fact, they are not improving the conditions of North Korea’s people… they are doing quite the opposite.

These strengthened sanctions, enacted by a unanimous 15-0 vote by the U.N. in December of 2017, entailed a variety of what the international community hoped to be economically debilitating provisions targeting North Korea’s economic strongholds. Specifically, one such measure reduced North Korean petroleum imports by nearly 90 percent. Other imports, like those of industrial machinery and military equipment, have also been banned. North Korean exports were targeted as well, including those of “electrical equipment, coal, minerals, seafood, food and agricultural products, wood, textile, and earth and stones,” according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. Other provisions essentially ban North Korean citizens from working outside of North Korea, effectively resulting in a two-year process to cease the employment of the nation’s citizens abroad. Moreover, the United States has enacted their own sanctions in the same line of thought (i.e., targeting North Korea’s military through its economic institutions) as that of the United Nations. These U.S. sanctions, according to Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, “systematically target individuals and entities financing the Kim regime and its weapons programs, including officials complicit in North Korean sanctions evasion schemes.”


Now, it may seem unclear how exactly the aforementioned sanctions against North Korea, among others, are leading to the potentially fatal starvation of upward of 60,000 children. After all, as UNICEF deputy executive director Omar Abdi explained in a statement, humanitarian aid and efforts are exempt by the UN Security Council from the provisions of these sanctions. However, as explained by Abdi and reported by Reuters, “the banks, the companies that provide goods or ship goods” for humanitarian relief efforts to North Korea “are very careful,” for fear of “being associated (with) breaking the sanctions” in any way. This fear, compounded by what UNICEF explained in an appeal to donors as “operational challenges” resulting from the “unintended consequences” of the sanctions, are making it increasingly difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the North Korean people. Specifically, as explained in UNICEF’s same donor appeal and as reported by Reuters, “disruptions to banking channels, delays in clearing relief items at entry ports, difficulty securing suppliers and a 160 percent increase in fuel prices” have made it nearly impossible to power and successfully execute the distribution of the necessary quantities of supplies and other forms of aid to North Korea.


The question remains, then, what can be done to mitigate the plight of North Korean children faced with severe malnutrition and the threat of deadly starvation? The obvious, yet apparently impossible, solution lies with in the North Korean regime itself. Were the nation’s military spending to be readjusted and redirected so that a greater portion of North Korea’s GDP was devoted to food and the kind of life-preserving provisions necessary – and currently lacking – for their people’s and children’s survival, the problem of malnutrition and starvation may be at least marginally counteracted. Additionally, such reduction of military spending would in turn decrease the proliferation of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, thus helping to ease tension in international community. This could open the door for greater cooperation between the North Korean regime and the international community, perhaps resulting in the consequent lifting of certain international sanctions against the nation; this, in turn, would provide greater and easier access to humanitarian aid for the people and children of North Korea. This easier access to foreign humanitarian aid, coupled with the redistribution of North Korea’s budget, would greatly allay threat of mass starvation for North Korean children. Of course, we are talking about North Korea, making these otherwise effective solutions nothing more than an idealistic pipedream. That being said, how do we fix this, and who do we turn to?


The realistic answer lies within the international community, yet even that may not be simply or incontestably reached. Naturally, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to North Korea’s oppressive, authoritarian regime under Kim Jong-un, or this dictator’s aggression and growing military capabilities that pose the very real threat of death and destruction by nuclear war to people around the globe. And considering North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the international community must tread lightly and, of course, nonviolently, to prevent an already dangerous situation from escalating into something far worse. Hence, the use of the carefully crafted and deliberated sanctions such as those issued by the U.N. and the U.S. These sanctions may be one of the few tools available to the international community for effectively reckoning with North Korea and thus must not be abandoned in spite of their reverberations for civilian populations. However, there must be methods developed and enacted for rectifying the damaging upshot – in this case the mass starvation of North Korean children –of these measures for global peace.


One such solution, perhaps, could be organizing more alternate, international coalitions – beyond just the U.N.’s UNICEF program – for providing humanitarian aid for the children and people of North Korea and other nations in which similar aid may be necessary. According to a Reuter’s report, “UNICEF is one of only a few aid agencies with access to [North Korea].” Now, while creating more aid agencies is a massive undertaking, requiring extensive resources and capital, it may be an effective solution to the starvation problem facing North Korea today. The pushback, of course, would be that such organizations would only face the same issues – like difficulty obtaining food and supplies, and manageably accessing ports – that existing ones do. However, I posit that in these circumstances, less is not more. The more varied and widespread efforts we have to combat the threat of starvation for the children of North Korea, the better, even if they are not as successful as one would hope given the circumstances.


Still, this is easier said than done, and at the end of the day, when it comes to solving a problem like North Korea, it seems the hands of the international community are tied; they are limited in the action they may take without inadvertently inciting a violent and absolutely destructive response from the nation’s volatile and aggressive dictator. Thus while sanctions are a necessary resort, what is the cost? Children cannot simply be left to starve and die, to serve as collateral for maintaining global peace. That would in fact be the complete antithesis of everything international coalitions designed to maintain international peace and uphold human rights – like the U.N. – stand for and seek to promote. Efforts, then, must be taken by these same organizations within the international community to combat the damage their peace efforts may cause; perhaps this must be the price for peace efforts: no more sanctions until solutions to the harm they do, especially and in this case to the children of North Korea, are implemented, or at least attempted. Humanitarian aid must be a condition, not a forethought, of peace efforts, and it is only when the international community realizes this that things may truly change, and peace – in all its forms – achieved.


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