On Feb. 20, North Korea fired two more ballistic missiles off its east coast, adding to a record number of missile tests over the past year. The missiles landed in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and Japan has requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. However, any Security Council resolution is unlikely, given expected opposition from Russia and China to additional restrictions on North Korea.
Since November 2022, Pyongyang has claimed to have nuclear warheads capable of striking the mainland United States. Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to rise, prompting South Korea to impose additional sanctions targeting North Korea’s weapons program.
The international community has imposed sanctions on North Korea for five years in an attempt to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Yet, by and large, these sanctions are not producing their desired result. North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons program; the missile tests are just one part of this development. Instead of forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, global sanctions instead are directly impacting ordinary North Koreans. Humanitarian organizations have received the full impact of sanctions, including banking and travel restrictions, and are unable to sufficiently provide life-saving aid.
However, a new poll from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) demonstrates a shift in American public opinion toward North Korea. AFSC surveyed 2,063 adults for their attitudes on peace and humanitarian issues involving North Korea and China. Sixty-two percent of Americans surveyed agree that the U.S. should lift sanctions if they interfere with humanitarian aid and global public health, and 54 percent agree that humanitarian aid workers from privately-funded charities should be allowed to travel to North Korea without restrictions from the U.S. government. In general, the poll demonstrated growing American approval for engagement with North Korea — a trend that should be reflected in U.S. policy.
For 14 years, I have been working on the ground as a humanitarian aid worker in North Korea. I am one of the few Americans who has lived in North Korea for over 10 years. In addition to providing nutritional support for children ages 5 and younger, I focus on providing medical treatment and special education to children with developmental disabilities, particularly those with cerebral palsy or autism.
In 2007, when I first started traveling to North Korea, there was relative ease and freedom for U.S. citizens to enter the country. Years of successful humanitarian engagement went by and then, in 2016 and 2017, U.S. sanctions were enforced at unprecedented levels. By September 2017, the State Department had issued a geographic travel restriction (GTR) forbidding U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea.
Since then, the travel ban has significantly impacted organizations’ ability to provide humanitarian assistance to North Koreans. Humanitarian workers are required to obtain special validation passports (SVP) from the State Department to travel to and from the country. In my experience, the process takes, on average, 30 to 60 days and humanitarian workers typically are approved for SVPs approximately 76 percent of the time.
Five years of global sanctions appear to have taken their toll on everyday life in North Korea. Scalpels, needles and basic medical equipment are in low supply. Women struggle to support their families because textile factories have closed and work has come to a halt. Most humanitarian organizations have pulled out of the country, resulting in approximately 41 percent of children being left vulnerable to malnutrition.
My co-workers and I aim to return to North Korea to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance to children. For three years, the borders have remained closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic; now, food and supplies that humanitarian workers once provided are in extremely high demand. As a result, humanitarian organizations must be ready to re-enter North Korea, assess the humanitarian situation, and provide aid as soon as the borders reopen. Unfortunately, the SVP application process prevents organizations from doing so on a moment’s notice.
One possible solution is to write caveats into the travel ban. Such caveats for travel restrictions have been done before, including for Cuba. Adding these caveats falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the State Department. Humanitarian organizations with work history in North Korea need the freedom to travel. By permitting charitable organizations the ability to respond to time-sensitive, urgent needs, we can help save the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
This would also free up time for the State Department to focus on the SVP process for newly applying organizations whose members want to travel to North Korea — perhaps expanding the potential for providing lifesaving humanitarian aid.
Joy Yoon is co-founder of IGNISCommunity, a nonprofit organization working in North Korea. She is the author of “Discovering Joy: Ten Years in North Korea,” and a co-author of “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea.” Follow her on Twitter @JoyYoon9.
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