Within moments of returning from his summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump struck a triumphant tone, buoyantly tweeting, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea … North Korea has great potential for the future!”
But just nine days later he extended an existing executive order “Notice Regarding the Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to North Korea” declaring, “North Korea continue[s] to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Those sanctions restrict financial transactions and activities as well as stop the flow of goods and commodities like stone, wood, iron, steel, coal, minerals, precious metals, seafood, petroleum and natural gas, and the import of everything from machinery, vehicles, farm equipment, fertilizer and medical supplies to purebred horses and ski gear.
But in a country where nearly 41 percent of the population is undernourished and almost 28 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, people need food, fuel, medicine and other basic necessities.
UN Reports “Grim Situation”
In a recent interview with UN News, Tapan Mishra, the UN resident coordinator for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), addressed the dramatic decline in humanitarian funding, saying that in 2017, aid for North Korea fell to a little less than one-third the amount requested.
This year, it’s worse. According to Mishra, only 9 percent ($10 million) of a requested $111 million has been received to help North Korea’s most desperate people, almost one-quarter of the population.
By point of contrast, the military parade requested by President Trump could cost an estimated $30 million.
North Korea’s humanitarian situation, Mishra told UN News, “remains grim for millions of civilians.”
Keeping Help Out
As devastating sanctions force humanitarian groups to scale back or halt their work in North Korea, one US-based organization still working in the country is the century-old, Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The group has been in North Korea since 1980 and has operated an Agricultural Development Program continuously for two decades.
Since 2010, Linda Lewis has managed the AFSC’s North Korea Program, which today focuses on improving agricultural productivity, introducing new technology and building US-North Korean partnerships.
In a phone interview with Truthout, Lewis said, “AFSC supports any move of the US government toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and also supports engagement and diplomacy.”
Lewis observed that for all of the US talk of “maximum pressure and diplomacy,” there hadn’t been much diplomacy.
“We really applaud the decision to go ahead and try to provide security assurances to North Korea, and try to negotiate a peace treaty,” Lewis said.
Lewis continued, saying the AFSC’s “feeling is that food security is one of the most critical humanitarian issues inside [North Korea], and rather than providing emergency food relief, we would rather focus on improving productivity at the farm level.” That includes increasing rice and vegetable production, building greenhouses, and other agricultural support.
Until 2018, Lewis was based in the AFSC’s office in Dalian, China, but as restrictions have grown increasingly onerous, it has become clear that she could accomplish more working in the US.
Today Lewis is based in Seattle and works with the AFSC’s public education and advocacy coordinator for Asia, Daniel Jasper. Twice a year she travels to North Korea with China-based AFSC staff for the spring planting season and autumn harvest, but entering the country has become all but impossible for US passport holders since the Trump administration imposed a travel ban last September.
To enter North Korea, AFSC staff must obtain a humanitarian exemption from the US State Department and be granted a special passport valid for only one trip.
“It’s been really hard to continue humanitarian work for the last couple of years, even for all the UN agencies that work inside the DPRK,” Lewis said, reciting a long list of affected UN agencies, including the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization.
Underscoring this isolation was the recent visit by the UN’s own Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, the first since 2011.
AFSC staff currently work with four North Korean farms. Prior to 2005, the organization was able to provide agricultural training in the US but when that became impossible, they began working in China and other parts of Asia.
Jasper, who has accompanied Lewis on recent monitoring trips, described how the State Department has become increasingly strict, explaining how even reproductive hygiene kits have been blocked because they contained aluminum sterilizers or small metal items like paper clips.
“To be quite frank, some of this stuff has gotten really petty, and it’s having real impacts [on] the most vulnerable,” Jasper told Truthout. “We hear at the UN and we hear in DC that sanctions and restrictions aren’t supposed to hurt the most vulnerable, but that’s exactly what [they’re] doing.”
Jasper described UN agencies applying to the UN to get waivers from UN sanctions to send UN aid. “It’s gotten unbelievably complicated for people and needlessly so,” he said.
Simple Technology Has an Impact
Recently two Chinese agricultural conservation experts from the AFSC joined Jasper and Lewis in visiting four partnered, state-run cooperative farms growing rice, grains and vegetable crops.
The organization introduced rice-seedling transplanting plastic trays that raised crop yield by 10-15 percent and increased labor efficiency. After they were tested on pilot farms outside Pyongyang, North Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture spread this simple technology nationwide, having a significant impact in a country where just 17 percent of the land is arable.
The AFSC’s biannual shipments of farm equipment had been “like clockwork” Jasper said, until this year when US restrictions made working in the country nearly impossible.
“The farm managers we work with are working really hard to feed the people they’re responsible for,” said Jasper. “They’re earnestly trying to feed their people so they’re part of the government too, and nobody really gets down to that level. [That’s] definitely part of the story that’s not talked about in the US much.”
The Sinister Logic of Sanctions
The international sanctions imposed on North Korea are perpetuating harm during a time of “hope and possibility,” according to Christine Hong, associate professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“Sanctions are sold as a surgical strike against the leadership of various societies that the United States doesn’t like,” Hong told Truthout. “There’s this sort of fiction that [sanctions] will be aimed at the leadership, it’s going to defund the possibility of North Korea being able to channel any kind of money toward its nuclear program, etcetera.”
Hong continued, “But in point of fact, when you sanction things like fuel … fertilizer … [or] things that have any sort of dual-use capacity … things like plastic tubes that are used for IV fluid, you’re harming ordinary people.”
This harm, according to Hong, is not an inadvertent side effect of sanctions; it’s the deliberate impact of sanctions. She argues sanctions are meant to destabilize a society.
“The goal is to get the general population so restive that they rise up against the leadership of the society,” Hong said. “That is the sinister logic of sanctions.”
Hong insists sanctions are not a soft alternative to war, nor are they aimed at bettering the lives of ordinary North Korean people. Rather, she calls sanctions against North Korea “an explicit part of US war policy” dating back to the earliest days of the Korean War.
Part of the legacy of the US’s bombing campaign on North Korea are the 420,000 bombs dropped on Pyongyang in what historian and professor Bruce Cumings called a “bombing holocaust.”
“Historians routinely say 4 million, some even say 5 million North Koreans were killed in that war,” Hong said. “Seventy percent are understood to be civilians. That’s not a clean war. It’s a profoundly dirty war.”
If there is to be normalization of relations between the US and North Korea, Hong said, “sanctions have to go by the wayside.”
Teachers Dismissed but Classes Continue
On the outskirts of North Korea’s capital is the country’s only privately-funded college, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Launched in 2001 by foreign evangelical Christians, the university’s co-president, Yu Taik Chon explained that while all instruction is in English, professors avoid discussing religion. The four-year university, which offered its first classes in 2010, has an enrollment of around 550 graduate and undergraduate students.
The 75 foreign faculty, many of whom (but not all) are evangelical Christian, come from more than a dozen countries including China, India, Canada, Brazil, Norway, Australia and the UK. Roughly half the instructors are Americans.
One of those American instructors is Pilju Kim Joo, who was born in North Korea but grew up in South Korea and later earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1970 before becoming a US citizen.
Kim Joo, who has a background working with global seed companies, has been working with North Korea since 1989 on sustainable community development. She has served as a professor at the university since 2010 and is now dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences, dividing her time between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Kim Joo is also the chair of Agglobe Services International, Inc., a humanitarian-aid organization helping a dozen farms in North Korea grow rice, corn and cotton, and raise livestock.
Under the current US travel ban, Kim Joo is prohibited from traveling to North Korea as a university instructor, but has been granted a humanitarian exemption twice for her work with Agglobe.
Some of the costs of the ban, Kim Joo told Truthout by Skype, were bureaucratic delays that have caused her to miss at least one planting season.
“I think we need to engage with [North Korea] and I think the person-to-person diplomacy is probably the best way to understand each other,” she said, citing the relationship her university’s students have developed with their foreign teachers.
Now is the time to increase North Korea-US person-to-person exchanges, said Kim Joo, adding “the faster, the better.”
Sanctions Are Making People Miserable
Like Kim Joo, the university’s co-president, Yu Taik Chon, was born in Pyongyang and fled during the Korean War, growing up in South Korea and later becoming a US citizen. Unlike Kim Joo, however, he has been unable to return to work in North Korea since the travel ban went into effect.
Chon teaches basic electrical engineering to students who are well positioned to later work in trading companies in foreign countries or in banks.
Chon’s students are among a select few who have the opportunity to access a “wide-open” internet connection on 50 computers available on campus. Chon said internet access is not blocked and is, in fact, more open than what he had experienced while working in China.
According to Chon, the university has sent more than 30 students to study overseas, mostly in China, but also Sweden, Brazil and the UK. These students are among the few North Koreans who will be well-positioned to connect North Korea to the outside world when the country opens up.
But in the meantime, sanctions impact fundraising for the school and the travel ban is disrupting one of the only places where North Koreans and foreigners can freely interact. Until the US travel ban expires (hopefully at the end of August, Chon said), he must continue his work from Seoul using the internet.
North Korea, as seen by people on the outside, is very different from what Chon sees inside, he said, adding that he has never feared war. “They say that the fear is proportionate to the distance from the [demilitarized zone],” Chon said with a laugh, before adding, “We Koreans are very optimistic.”
But when asked how sanctions impact the lives of ordinary North Koreans, he said, “I heard that people’s life is getting harder.”
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