The Human Cost of Sanctions on North Korea

Economic sanctions have become Washington's preferred means of punishing/coercing nations that fail to fall into line with its global agenda.  As shown on this graphic, there are a significant number of sanctions programs that are being used to manipulate governments around the world into submission:

In some cases, Washington's sanctions programs have existed for decades, particularly those imposed against Cuba and Iran.  While North Korea (DPRK) and its nuclear ambitions are a relative newcomer to the American-led sanctions reality, unilateral sanctions by the United States against the DPRK have existed in one form or another since 1950 – 1953 during the Korean War.  These sanctions have been less than completely effective since they have been undermined by nations that fail to enforce them or deliberately trade with one of the world's pariah nations, the sanctions have taken a toll on the civilian population of North Korea according to a recent study commissioned by Korea Peace Now.

North Korea is currently one of the most sanctioned nations in the world with unilateral American and United Nations sanctions that have resulted in a near total ban on investment and trade in the DPRK.  While the United Nations sanctions state that their sanctions regime is not supposed to have adverse humanitarian consequences, the study shows that this is clearly not the case.  Here's what UN Resolution 2397 (2017) has to say:

"Underlining once again the importance that the DPRK respond to other security and humanitarian concerns of the international community including the necessity of the DPRK respecting and ensuring the welfare, inherent dignity, and rights of people in the DPRK, and expressing great concern that the DPRK continues to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by diverting critically needed resources away from the people in the DPRK at tremendous cost when they have great unmet needs…

Reiterates its deep concern at the grave hardship that the people in the DPRK are subjected to, condemns the DPRK for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of the welfare of its people while people in the DPRK have great unmet needs, emphasizes the necessity of the DPRK respecting and ensuring the welfare and inherent dignity of people in the DPRK, and demands that the DPRK stop diverting its scarce resources toward its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles at the cost of the people in the DPRK;

Regrets the DPRK’s massive diversion of its scarce resources toward its development of nuclear weapons and a number of expensive ballistic missile programs, notes the findings of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance that well over half of the people in the DPRK suffer from major insecurities in food and medical care, including a very large number of pregnant and lactating women and under-five children who are at risk of malnutrition and 41% of its total population who are undernourished, and, in this context, expresses deep concern at the grave hardship to which the people in the DPRK are subjected…". (my bolds)

The United Nations has a mechanism that looks at humanitarian exemptions to North Korea's sanctions on a case-by-case basis through its 1718 Committee.  In an analysis of 25 exemption requests before the Committee, there were months of delays for what would seem to be critical cases such as water systems, ambulances and medical equipment for maternal and neonatal emergencies. 

There are also significant problems with humanitarian programs in the DPRK which focus on helping the nation's women and children.  The UN Needs and Priorities 2018 program applied for $111 million but was only 24 percent funded.  UNICEF's Humanitarian Action for Children 2019 appealed for $16.5 million but had a 69 percent funding gap at year's end.  Programs that would assist in meeting the needs of 6 million North Koreans had their lowest funding levels in a decade and were one of the lowest funded appeals in the world.  There is little doubt that Washington has played a role in discouraging other nations from donating to programs that might assist North Koreans.

While the United Nations Security Council (and by extension, the United States) feigns great concern over the plight of North Korea's civilian population, the study makes it quite clear that the delay in supplying certain imports into the nation have resulted in "increased mortality", reduced human rights including the rights to food, health and development.  It is the chronic lack of food security, access to basic health services and issues with water, sanitation and hygiene that are causing the greatest problems for North Koreans.  Let's look at some of the issues:

1.) Food Insecurity – ten million North Koreans are food insecure with food production of only 4.95 million tons in 2018, down by 9 percent from 2017 and 16 percent from 2016.  This is due to a lack of access to modern agricultural equipment and spare parts, fuel and fertilizers as well as recurrent natural disasters.  The lack of fuel also limits farmers' ability to irrigate which results in reduced yields and increased crop susceptibility to extreme weather shocks.  Fuel shortages also mean that farmers are having to increasingly rely on manual labour to plant and harvest crops, resulting in increased post-harvest losses.

2.) Health Services – nine million North Koreans, particularly those in rural areas, have limited access to quality health services which is threatening recent achievements in reduced infant and under-five mortality rates.  Sanctions have led to shortages of sterilizers, UV lamp for disinfection, ambulances, orthopaedic appliances for disabled persons, ultrasound and cardiograph equipment, syringes, catheters, X-ray machines, microscopes and other key medical equipment.  North Koreans suffered from one of the world's highest rates of tuberculosis with an infection rate of 513 per 100,000 people and an estimated 20,000 tuberculosis-related deaths annually.  Health facilities often lack essential medical equipment and life-saving medicines required to provide health services with many facilities having problems maintaining water and electricity supplies.  The lack of clean water and sanitation facilities (WaSH) has lead to 36.6 percent of the population relying on contaminated water for drinking, a situation that leads to wasting disease in children.  Women of childbearing age are particularly vulnerable with 23. 2 percent being malnourished which impacts the nation's ability to repopulate itself.

Now, let's look at the impact of the sanctions on North Korean civilians.  The full extent of the sanctions is difficult to assess, however, the authors of the study believe that the following preventable deaths took place because of delays in assessing exemptions to sanctions and funding shortfalls:

Let's close with this quote from the report:

"In a landmark 2012 study on how unilateral coercive measures may be violating international law, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found the most relevant humanitarian principles to be the prohibition against the starvation of a civilian population as a method of warfare, the obligation to permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs as well as medical supplies, and the prohibition of collective punishment.  Meanwhile, it found the most relevant human rights to be “the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, the right to freedom from hunger, and the right to health.”".

If it is the intention of Washington (and its proxy, the United Nations) to coerce and punish North Korean civilians into submitting to its will, even the sanction-related deaths of thousands of North Koreans and the suffering of millions more seems to have done little to break their spirit.

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