Maximum pressure on North Korea: humanitarian groups labor under sanctions

North Korean children perform at school children palace

According to Women Cross DMZ, North Koreans this winter will continue to struggle with an unprecedented number of sanctions.

Sanctions have been imposed on North Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) since 1950 ostensibly because it is an authoritarian communist regime. However the number of sanctions rose sharply after 2006 for its launching of ballistic missiles and conducting of nuclear tests. But the latest rounds are also impacting foreign aid groups.

Since 2010, nine major sanctions-resolutions have been adopted by the United Nations Security Council which are comprehensive as well as targeted. In addition to these multilateral sanctions, a number of states including the European Union, United States, Australia, Japan, China, and South Korea have imposed their own unilateral sanctions.

Multilateral sanctions recently are specific and target North Korean trade above and beyond nuclear weapons or related manufacturing. They include all kinds of international financial transactions against specific businesses and government officials to general transactions. But the latest sanctions impede the ability of humanitarian groups to conduct charity operations, even well-established ones.

According to Doug Hostetter of Mennonite Central Committee:

“One of the partner organizations I work with wrote to me recently and said, we’re now perhaps in the most extreme situation ever within the last 22 years of working with the DPRK with regard to tensions, sanctions, and related restrictions. Beginning in 2017, we’ve faced the challenges of external tax that affects our everyday transactions, from shipping, banking, purchasing, trading customs accords, travel permissions, etc.”

The sanctions are reputed to be designed for maximum pressure because according to Evans J.R. Revere, a former State Department official:

“We must understand and accept that the problem we face is the nature of the North Korean regime itself. Intensifying economic pressure, highlighting the regime’s dismal human rights record, and increasing the flow of information to the North Korean people could hasten the transformation of the regime’s thinking. So, too, could targeted sanctions and other measures designed to shake the confidence of the elites on which the regime depends.”

The Trump administration embraces draconian measures

Revere’s policy paper, “Facing the Facts: Towards a New U.S. North Korea Policy,” is reflected in Trump Administration foreign policy. Through Congress and by Executive Order, the United States has imposed targeted unilateral sanctions. They include the ability to remotely monitor and surveil all types of North Korean activities and apply an ever greater number of financial penalties based on reported illegal activities including in cyberspace, banking, human rights, or illegal trading of banned exports.

Through hardline administrators such as U.N. Ambassadors Nikki Haley, Security Advisor John R. Bolton, and South Korea Ambassador Harry B. Harris Jr., the Trump Administration has enacted increasingly harsh sanctions. Unilateral sanctions also include Executive Order 13810 which allows the United States to cut from its financial system any companies, businesses, organizations and individuals trading in “goods, services or technology with North Korea.” Vice-President Mike Pence has also pursued a hardline approach encouraging Japan and other nations to impose sanctions.

Primary sanctions include all heavy industrial manufactured equipment and weaponry, as well as luxury goods. It includes banning North Korean exchange students from studying sciences that might empower them in science, manufacturing, or nuclear engineering. For instance Security Council Resolution 2321 adopted on November 30, 2016 suspends “scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea except for medical purposes.”

Secondary sanctions are designed to induce energy and economic hardship. Specifically under UNSC Resolution 2321 it prohibits export of minerals such as copper, nickel, silver, and zinc. After UNSC Resolution 2371 was adopted on August 5, 2017, an outright ban is placed on export of coal, iron, iron ore, and additionally lead and lead ore from the DPRK.

Tertiary sanctions are placed in sectors that have nothing to do with manufacturing. They are strictly designed to reduce North Korean independence. For instance basic economic livelihoods are impacted in the banning of export of seafood, prohibiting joint ventures between North Korea and other nations, and banning North Korean laborers as detailed in UNSC 2371.

UNSC 2375 adopted on September 11, 2017 following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test fully bans textile exports, bans hiring North Korean nationals in U.N. member states, and places energy restriction caps in all types of fossil fuels. Lastly, UNSC 2397 adopted on December 22, 2017 strengthens the ban on North Korean exports to include all food, agricultural products, minerals, machinery and electrical equipment.

Enforcement breaks humanitarian law

These bans are so comprehensive and strict that the effects are crippling despite the disclaimer that the sanctions are “not intended to have humanitarian consequences.”

According to Ms. Yehjung Yi, Director for Korean Sharing Movement, South Korea, the impacts of the latest rounds of sanctions are having deleterious effects for humanitarian assistance organizations. Her chart indicates a dramatic drop off in the number of clients helped in North Korea since 2016. Containers bound for North Korea are detained and even small items such as nail clippers, construction materials such as nuts and bolts, and rice planting machines are now confiscated. Financial payments and transfers between banks are stopped or not going through.

Piracy and illegal confiscations are almost inevitable with sanctions that give UN member states the authority to interdict and inspect North Korean cargo within their territory, and subsequently seize and dispose of illicit shipments. Over and over, each new sanction specifically encourages U.N. member states to inspect all DPRK cargo whether transported by air, land, or sea. All around the world, practically any nation can seize containers believed to hold prohibited items: seafood, textiles, technology, minerals, related goods, research materials, industrial items, etc.

Calling on member states to withhold public financial support, refuse loans and credit, monitor private persons or companies, and board any suspected vessels or vehicles or airplanes encourages unfair trade practices against the DPRK. Additional penalties apply if the DPRK is caught resorting to what it must to survive such as reliance on the night market or unreliable proxy business companies.

Mandatory inspections, freezing of assets, maintaining vigilance over North Korean diplomats or travelers also encourages harassment. The official crime, according to UNSC 2270 of March 2, 2016 is that “the North Korean regime has seriously neglected to meet the needs of the North Korean people and has instead prioritized development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.” Never mind that this crime rings a bell of familiarity here in the land of the free: there is a detectable hypocrisy in accusing the DPRK of being obsessed with nuclear weapons research when the U.S. is the paragon of chasing global primacy whatever the national costs.

However, as law scholar Henri Feron of Columbia Law School notes, it’s not easy to accuse the lawmaker of being above the law. At the Women Cross DMZ Conference at the United Nations Plaza in February 2018, Feron stated he believed that the economic sanctions imposed on North Korea violate several well recognized human rights treaties, namely, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right to life; while the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights protects the right to an adequate standard of living.

When laws violate human rights treaties must they be obeyed? One perspective is the sanctions appear to violate North and South Korea’s right to sovereignty and self determination: the right to work and be paid adequately; the right to liberty of movement; the right to live and adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice; the right to be free from fear; and the right to freely dispose of one’s natural wealth and resources as one chooses. On the other hand, the continuing outcries, mass media denunciation, and ridicule of North Korea could amount to unlawful war propaganda; advocating and inciting hatred or violence, hostility, or discrimination is prohibited under Article 20 of the treaty.

Dr. Kevin Gray of the University of Sussex told the audience:

“It’s interesting that if you look at even the most recent UN resolutions they say that these sanctions are not meant to have humanitarian consequences, but they obviously are aimed at doing precisely that so there is kind of an increasing contradiction.”

Dr. Gray deplores the demonization of the DPRK leader by the mainstream media. One may in fact note that even documentaries by respectable journalists tend to poke fun at the backwardness of the country or mock the juche-system of human labor.

Sense of humanitarianism needed not ideological war

Because the Trump administration is packed with war-hawks, it is not likely to give up trying to destroy the Kim regime either economically or otherwise any time soon. The conservative mode is backed by capitalist think tanks and their analysts who churn out framework papers defending the sanctions even when there is evidence of starvation. In “World Food Day: The Challenge of North Korea,” expert Roberta Cohen suggests that more extreme measures are needed because of the tendency of the elite in Pyongyang to skim off World Food Programme shipments. Her paper posits that food aid reform must be linked with mandatory economic reform.

“While food aid linked to denuclearization has been seen to undermine humanitarian goals, the linkage of food aid to economic reforms should enhance those goals…Going forward, there should be an understanding that food aid and any additional assistance be reinforced by agricultural policy reforms. ‘No reform, no aid’ would be the ultimate objective.”

Obviously the steps needed to topple a government, step in, and replace it with a government friendly for U.S. globalists are taken from the blueprint of strife in the Middle East, Near East, Africa, and South America. There is no questioning that forced interventionalism awakens fear and defiance among sovereigns still trying to maintain their way of governance.

Evans J.R. Revere in “Facing the Facts“:

“We must understand and accept that the problem we face is the nature of the North Korean regime itself. Intensifying economic pressure, highlighting the regime’s dismal human rights record, and increasing the flow of information to the North Korean people could hasten the transformation of the regime’s thinking. So, too, could targeted sanctions and other measures designed to shake the confidence of the elites on which the regime depends. But all of these measures could also contribute to the regime’s demise, even if the goal of U.S. policy is not regime change. Accordingly, Washington should intensify discussions with Seoul and Tokyo (and Beijing, if it is willing) on how to respond to the collapse of the North Korean regime.”

The tools in the arsenal listed: increasing the flow of information via pro-free-market propaganda; soft coercion such as via third party nonprofits in the mode of Haiti disaster relief; promoting the sanctions globally; exerting military pressure; and even carrying out special operations.

It is arguable that once the Pentagon identifies an enemy nation, the course can be reversed. However there is still hope for a change in perspective. On how much data needs to be collected to convince the United Nations that sanctions are inhumane, Dr. Kee Park stated:

“Just last month, UNICEF reported that 60,000 NK children face starvation unless aid is restored. There is an oath that doctors take which may apply at this point. In Latin, it’s called ‘primum non nocere‘; it means ‘first do no harm.'”

However most likely the UNSC sanctions imposed on the DPRK are designed to remain in place until the DPRK regime collapses, whether before or after they stop their nuclear program; the evidence being that very few waivers are granted.

This is why Women Cross DMZ has made it its mission to raise global awareness about the urgent need for peace in Korea, to convince leaders to reduce militarization, to convince them to establish dialogue, and especially to officially end the Korean War by signing a Treaty for Peace and Reunification. The Conference which took place in February 2018 during the Seoul Olympic Games is called “When Maximum Pressure Hurts Innocent Lives” and is viewable at YouTube (

Women Cross DMZ at the United Nations Plaza on February 9, 2018, Roundtable Discussion on UN Security Council and Bilateral Sanctions Against North Koreans

Guest panelists:

Dr. Kevin Gray, University of Sussex; Yehjung Yi, KSM; Henri Feron, Columbia Law School; Yifat Susskind, MADRE; Doug Hostetter, Mennonite Central Committee; Dr. Kee Park, Harvard Medical School; Christine Ahn, Women Cross DMZ

How to Build a Health Relief Kit  by Mennonite Central Committee

Mennonite Central Committee YouTube Channel

To learn more about how to build a relief kit, and if you live in the U.S., visit:

Top photo from Peace, A New Future, 2018 Inter-Korean Summit