Tag Archive | "Humanitarian"

Damaging Floods in North Korea Raise Need for Humanitarian Assistance

By Robert R. King

We are at the peak of the annual hurricane season, and this year looks to be another painful reminder of Mother Nature’s power.  The Southeast United States has just seen one of the largest and most destructive hurricanes in recent memory.  In the Pacific hurricane Lane dropped record-breaking amounts rain on Hawaii, and typhoon Mangkhut, ravaged the Philippines and then moved on to inflict destruction in Hong Kong and southern China with 170 mile per hour winds and record rainfall.

Northeast Asia has also suffered under this year’s severe storms.  In late August two major typhoons—Soulik and Cimarron—affected significant areas in Japan, South Korea, and North Korea.  All three countries felt the effects, but in North Korea, the impact was far greater.  In some areas in just a few hours rainfall reached nearly 25 inches.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported in early September that severe flooding in North Korea killed 76 people and that at least 75 people, including many children, were missing.  Thousands were left homeless by the destructive floods, which destroyed some 800 homes, schools, medical clinics and other buildings.  Areas most affected were North and South Hwanghae provinces, which are nationally important agricultural areas of southwest North Korea.  The flooding came four weeks after reports that these same two provinces were suffering severe drought as a late summer heatwave resulted in rice, corn (maize) and other crops withering.

The twin scourge of drought followed by severe flooding is unfortunately a common pattern in the DPRK.  The North Korean famine of the mid- to late-1990s—known as the “Arduous March”—was in part caused by a similar drought followed by severe flooding, though these natural causes were amplified by economic mismanagement and the cessation of significant Soviet economic aid with the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1991.  Estimates of the most likely number of excess deaths from the famine of the mid-1990s vary from 240,000 to 3.5 million people in a country with a population at the time of 22 million.  The most careful estimate of the loss of life during that time concluded that the death toll was “as many as one million North Koreans.”

There is little question about the need for assistance to help North Korea cope with the damage of the floods, particularly since the areas most affected provide an important portion of the staple crops that feed the population of the North.  At the same time, the autocratic regime in Pyongyang is a major source of the problem in the North.  National resources are spent on nuclear, missile, and military programs as well as luxuries for the elite.  This means resources are not available for infrastructure to protect areas which annually see flooding or drought, and resources are not available for disaster relief at times like these.

Those who suffer most from these natural disasters, however, are not those who make the country’s economic and military decisions.  The citizens of the DPRK have no real say in the selection of their leaders, and they have little or no voice in the policy choices.  The fault is not with those who suffer, but with those who make flawed decisions, but still continue to rule.

At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that North Korea is a poor country.  Its neighbors are wealthy.  South Korea and Japan have among the highest per capita incomes in the world.  While China has a modest per-capita income, it is the second largest economy in the world.  North Korea’s inefficient and poorly organized economy functions at very low level.  In terms of per capita income, North Korea ranks just below Haiti and Togo and just above Sierra Leone and Eritrea.

North Korea has not endured another round of flooding with potentially serious consequences for the country.  For the United States, the question is whether we should provide humanitarian assistance.  Beginning with the famine of the mid-1990s and somewhat sporadically since then, the United States has provided significant food and other humanitarian and economic assistance to deal with the serious needs in North Korea.  During that time, direct U.S. government aid totaled some $1.3 billion.  The U.S. was one of the major international donors to North Korea between the late 1990s until 2008, though we have provided very little government assistance since then.

At present, U.S. government assistance for North Korea is unlikely, even with difficult humanitarian conditions.  While there is lip service to the principle of providing humanitarian aid based solely on need and availability of total resources, political considerations do get in the way of our principles.  The relationship between North Korea and the United States—despite the soaring rhetoric and colorful photo ops of the recent Singapore Summit and the possibility of a repeat event—there is little support in Congress for providing aid to North Korea.

At the same time, however, it does not make sense for the United States to discourage or hamper the provision of humanitarian assistance to North Korea to cope with such natural disasters as the recent flooding in North and South Hwanghae provinces or for dealing with other such humanitarian needs.  Washington should not oppose humanitarian assistance from South Korea, from the United Nations or other international organizations, or from American and other non-government organizations.

Two conditions, however, should be met if aid is provided to North Korea.  First, help should be based on a careful and accurate assessment of need, and aid should be tailored to meet those identified needs.  Second, aid should be monitored to be certain that assistance reaches those for whom it is intended.  These are conditions that any provision of humanitarian assistance should meet anywhere in the world.  These are not conditions that apply only in the case of North Korea.

Even though the United States government is unlikely to provide humanitarian aid to the North, the U.S. should support such help for the North in the United Nations.  Furthermore, the U.S. should not prevent or discourage such aid.  The draconian requirements for American citizens traveling to North Korea even for humanitarian, educational, and such purposes are being enforced in such a way that it very difficult and expensive for American humanitarian workers to travel to North Korea to assess need and monitor the use of help they provide.  We have made clear to Kim Jong-un our concern regarding the detention of American citizens, and it is probably still a good idea to discourage sight-seeing and running in the Pyongyang Marathon.  But it is not useful to hamper and discourage humanitarian help.

This is also true of the sanctions on items sent into North Korea.  UN sanctions on the DPRK provide an exception for humanitarian assistance, but we need to be certain that we are not choking off the flow of needed assistance.  The United States needs to use its influence in the United Nations and in other international situations to encourage legitimate humanitarian assistance for North Korea.

If we are interested in the goodwill of North Koreans, it is important to allow American non-government organizations to provide assistance to the North.  An important part of that is allowing easier travel permission for Americans with these aid groups to travel there in order to assess and monitor the need and use of this help.  It is also important for North Koreans outside of Pyongyang to know that generous Americans care if they have enough to eat, if they have access to medical attention, and if they have temporary shelter from the next rain storm.

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 Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

Final DPRK Travel Ban Regulations Will Cut Humanitarian Help for North

By Robert King

On September 1st, the ban on travel to North Korea for holders of U.S. passports went into effect.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a month earlier that the ban would be imposed, but the initial statement indicated that there would be exemptions for humanitarian activities and journalists.  Those exemptions, however, are limited and narrow.

The regulations provide four specific groups who will be granted permission to travel to the DPRK: Professional journalists whose reporting will be made available publicly; American citizens who are employed by the International Red Cross or the American Red Cross who are traveling to the North on an official Red Cross mission; individuals whose travel is justified by a “compelling humanitarian interest;” and individuals whose travel is “otherwise in the national interest.”

Not only are the categories tightly limited, but the State Department has not made the application process easy.  The first step in receiving permission to use a U.S. passport to go to North Korea is to request permission with supporting documentation.  The regulations do not indicate how long it will require for a decision, but there is no evidence that such requests will get expedited treatment.  If the request is denied, there is no appeal.  If the request is approved, the individual will then have to apply separately for a special U.S. passport.   To get this special validated passport apparently requires a new passport application with the appropriate fees.  The U.S. passport with the DPRK travel exception will be valid only for a single trip, and any subsequent travel will require a new travel permit application and a new U.S. specially validated passport.

American citizens involved in humanitarian and educational programs in the DPRK left North Korea prior to the effective date of the new travel requirements.  Leaders of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) have expressed concerns about the impact of the travel ban on their humanitarian and assistance programs.

With the imposition of the travel ban, it is worth considering the factors that led to this decision and its potential consequences.

The initial decision to impose the travel ban was largely the outgrowth of the tragic death of American college student Otto Warmbier after he was detained, tried, spent 17 months imprisoned in the North, and died shortly after being returned to the United States in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.”   He died in mid-June, and the travel ban was announced six weeks later.  State Department official travel warnings for the DPRK, issued well before Otto Warmbier was detained, bluntly said “Do not travel to North Korea,” but there was no prohibition on travel.

Over the last decade or so, some twenty Americans have been detained by the DPRK, in most cases for reasons that are consistent with North Korean laws, but not with those of democratic societies like the United States.  These detained Americans required considerable effort by American diplomats to seek their release from the North, and in some cases their release required visits to the DPRK by former presidents Clinton and Carter and other senior American officials.

There was frustration in Washington over using U.S. diplomatic resources to seek the release of Americans in North Korea when there were questions about the benefit of the travel in the first place.  Also, there was concern that tourist dollars were being used to fund DPRK military programs and the leader’s lavish lifestyle.

A second element which likely encouraged the decision on the travel ban was the growing American frustration of dealing with the DPRK’s illicit nuclear and missile programs.  Over the past year the ramp-up of missile tests as well as continued nuclear weapon development has led to a growing sense of urgency.  At the same time, the options available to contain the North are limited.  American tourist revenue is a small source of funding for the military, but cutting off the revenue might be helpful.

Americans taking a North Korean tour to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon serves little benefit other than to give adventurous Americans bragging rights.  The DPRK receives significant revenue from such travel.

There are, however, significant but intangible benefits to the United States from the humanitarian efforts of private American citizens, and the travel ban will significantly reduce American NGO efforts.

American NGOs help undermine the DPRK’s oft repeated charge of “American hostility.”  The vicious brutal image North Koreans have of Americans is softened for those North Koreans who deal directly with Americans (though the Koreans are carefully vetted and monitored).   Furthermore, contact with Americans helps get external information to North Koreans otherwise unable to access information about the outside world.  In a country where all information is tightly controlled by the Pyongyang government, even such limited contact with Americans provides information that undermines government information controls.  Such information helps pry open a tightly closed society.

Another non-political benefit is the good that is done by these American NGOs.  North Korea is a poor country whose standard of living has more in common with sub-Saharan Africa than its Asian neighbors. (UN Per capita income figures for 2015 place DPRK at 179 of 195 countries, while South Korea is number 31.  North Korea is below Sierra Leone and Rwanda, but above Uganda in the UN ranking.)  There is no question that the poverty and living standards are the result of regime mismanagement, and its use of scarce resources for military expenditures rather than for the well-being of the people.  Clearly, the regime is responsible.

The North Korean people suffer because of their leaders, but they are not responsible for the totalitarian regime’s policies.  American NGOs provide help dealing with humanitarian issues such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis—which benefits not only infected North Koreans, but also neighboring populations in China, South Korea and Russia, which could be infected if the disease is not controlled. These humanitarian and aid projects are funded through the generosity of many Americans who contribute to these efforts and other Americans who carry out them out.

It is difficult to see that these stringent restrictions on American NGOs engaged in humanitarian engagement in the North will have benefits that justify ending the benefits they provide.

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 (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.