The implementation of strict COVID-19 measures, notably the closure of the Sino-Korean border, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, and devastating weather, has led to a substantial shortfall of food in the DPRK. This ongoing situation has led to reports of starvation and hunger in a country already afflicted by malnourishment, with analysts warning of a looming humanitarian crisis.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the situation as “tense” in his address to the Workers’ Party Central Committee in June, and acknowledged the agricultural sector’s inability to provide an adequate supply of grain due to last year’s typhoons. This follows his previous statement and call on the nation to “wage another more difficult arduous march,” a reference to the famine of the 1990s.
Human Rights Watch, citing media reports using uncorroborated witnesses in North Korea, spoke of soldiers going hungry, and elites suffering food shortages in the capital. Similar accounts have been reported by NK News. Given the central government’s prioritization of price stability and product availability in Pyongyang, as demonstrated in the 1990s, such reports suggest a looming humanitarian crisis. Witnesses have also reported an increase in homelessness and begging.
The Seoul-based Korea Development Institute reported a shortfall of more than a million tonnes of food, well below the 5.2 million tonnes required to feed North Korea. These figures were echoed by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization which further illustrated the damage done by poor weather. The damage included last year’s typhoons and the drought in early 2020; with imports providing little relief.
Further insight into the mounting crisis has been hindered by the exodus of foreign diplomats and aid workers over the past year, with UNICEF and the Red Cross pulling their international aid workers in December 2020.
The closure of the Chinese border, and the ambiguity surrounding when it will be reopened, risks North Korea running out of polio and tuberculosis vaccines as well as other essential commodities. This, in the wake of delays in the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, has caused further uncertainty.
Furthermore, the recent reports of food insecurity calls into question the efficacy of UNSC sanctions, given the lack of distinction made between military and civilian economies. Professor Hazel Smith of SOAS University of London has repeatedly warned of the damaging effects of sanctions on the country’s food insecurity and has called on the UNSC to suspend its continued use of sanctions due to its impact on the country’s agriculture. Analysts suggest that these sanctions have had a greater impact on food shortfalls than both COVID-19 and the subsequent Chinese border closure. UNSC sanctions have limited imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products, hindering farmers ability to plant and harvest crops without fuel.
Scholarly and policy literature has repeatedly highlighted the limitations of sanctions, with Haiti (1993-1994) and Iraq (1990-2003) being prime examples of how sanctions can contribute to the worsening of humanitarian crises, exacerbating child malnutrition and mortality. UN policy asserts that sanctions are imposed to support governments and peaceful transitions rather than to serve as a punitive measure. Yet the nature of these sanctions appear to have done very little for the humanitarian situation in the region and, as analysts have pointed out, have made the agricultural situation dire. The international community should do more to recognize the impact that sanctions have on the well-being of civilians. Indiscriminate sanctions fail to separate military or political entities from innocents, and there is no mechanism in international law that protects civilian positions; despite how devastating the consequences of economic sanctions can be on non-combatants who are already living under authoritarian rule.
Sanctions were introduced as a result of North Korea’s nuclear testing and to encourage denuclearization. However, the UNSC never laid out any roadmap that suggests sanctions could lead to denuclearization in the DPRK. Given the nature of North Korea’s authoritarian polity and Kim Jong Un’s focus on “Juche,” sanctions as a means of triggering political change appear futile. Denuclearization is an important goal and an essential component to peacebuilding, however; the use of sanctions to encourage North Korean denuclearization has done little to achieve this goal, and instead has contributed to chronic food insecurity in the region.
As the US reviews its policy on North Korea, the OWP calls for a refocus towards protecting human rights and for broader diplomatic relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. Sanctions, in many ways, are counterproductive and fail to recognize those caught in the crossfire. Fundamentally, it is the responsibility of the North Korean leadership to ensure the welfare of its citizens, however, the continued implementation of measures that have already been shown to exacerbate a growing food crisis should not be allowed to continue. Diplomacy, rather than economic pressure, should be the priority.
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