(Source: KCNA)

The COVID-19 outbreak in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is of immediate global concern. The country’s health infrastructure, which the Global Health Index ranked 193rd out of 195, is not equipped to deal with a pandemic, especially not one that spreads as quickly as the Omicron variant. Without proper treatments and vaccines, the virus threatens to rage in the country. This would create the perfect conditions for new variants to appear, which poses a threat to the rest of the world.

Many will rightly point out here that the United States, South Korea, and multilateral initiatives like COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) have expressed willingness to provide COVID aid, which North Korea has not. accepted to date. Beyond likely frustrations in Washington and Seoul, it’s crucial to point out that the rapid spread of Omicron and other emerging variants isn’t just about North Korea — these issues pose a threat to global security. As such, assistance efforts should be pursued as an urgent common goal. Additionally, understanding the recent history of humanitarian cooperation in the country is necessary to understand why North Koreans may be reluctant to accept aid and what policy changes might make them more willing to receive aid. .

Fire, fury and food: the recent politicization of aid in North Korea

The failed diplomatic attempts under the Trump administration may provide the key framework for understanding North Korea’s current reluctance to accept help from countries other than its longtime ally China. By most accounts, the detente between the United States and North Korea collapsed in Hanoi when the two sides pulled out without an agreement. However, diplomacy under the Trump administration had never been consistent, and the manipulation of humanitarian channels undermined negotiations from the start.

Following the historic first meeting between Trump and Kim and the signing of Singapore’s joint statement that pledged “to establish a new relationship between the United States and the DPRK”, the United States began to severely restrict non-governmental humanitarian operations in North Korea and major secondary channels, which was a confusing way to restore relations. So while the United States publicly declared a new beginning to its relationship with North Korea, it was ending all meaningful engagement behind the scenes.

Initially, the closure of humanitarian channels was not a stated policy of the administration. Instead, these actions were quietly carried out by the US State Department, which began to deny aid workers the special clearances needed to travel to North Korea. The U.S. Treasury Department also began dramatically delaying requests for assistance and denying approvals even for simple cooperative activities, such as routine reforestation trainings, which before this time had helped reduce the need. overall aid in reducing the impact of flooding.

Even before the Singapore summit, aid channels were already under pressure. United Nations (UN) sanctions resolutions passed in 2017 banned the shipment of any metal products, a move that created bureaucratic nightmares for aid operations. Shortly thereafter, a backlog of aid shipments accumulated at ports, preventing access to emergency medical care for the most vulnerable. Surgical patients went without anesthesia and child nutrition programs were curtailed due to cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and confusion among customs officials. Meanwhile, suppliers and shipping lines have become more reluctant to work with aid groups, and banking channels have completely collapsed. UN sanctions stipulations have gone so far as to cover spoons and paperclips, and on at least 42 occasions aid shipments have been cut off midway, often for reasons such as the presence of small metal objects such as nail clippers.

To complicate matters at the time, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria abruptly announced in February 2018 that it would stop funding projects in North Korea. Citing “risk management” issues, the decision stopped treatments that had reduced malaria by around 72%. The Global Fund has also made a small but significant contribution in an attempt to meet the immense need for treatment and prevention of tuberculosis (TB). The open secret in Washington, however, was that the Global Fund’s decision was in fact influenced by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

The Trump administration’s decision to escalate the conditions for aid operations before and immediately after the signing of Singapore’s joint statement has, at best, sent mixed signals to Pyongyang. Most likely, however, the phasing out of longstanding aid operations has cast reasonable doubt in the minds of North Koreans about the stated US commitment to building a new relationship.

These attacks on global humanitarian and health operations were consistent with the Trump administration’s propensity to dismantle global initiatives. Although some of these problems had been corrected at the UN level, the damage had already been done – ordinary people were suffering needlessly, established relationships were strained and aid operations already under-resourced were under increased pressure.

Similar to Trump’s decision to drastically reduce disease control cooperation with China, these decisions ultimately put the humanitarian and global health communities in the worst possible situation in the years leading up to a global pandemic. The relatively recent politicization of aid has all but been forgotten in Washington, but it provides essential context for understanding how and why there are currently difficulties in providing global health and humanitarian cooperation in places like North Korea.

These nongovernmental aid organizations, which are primarily faith-based, have long-standing operations in North Korea, such as the one I represent – the American Friends Service Committee, which has been active in North Korea since 1980. However, Policy makers rarely appreciate these decades of confidence building and on-the-ground experience. Although I have heard US officials tell aid groups that they are “the best representation of American values ​​on the ground in North Korea”, US policy has posed significant obstacles to the work of aid organizations. long before COVID.

Herein lies a critical misalignment: the United States primarily views aid as a “carrot” to induce North Korea to engage in dialogue, while North Korea appears to view aid as an essential cooperative activity. establishing a new relationship.

Given the long history of humanitarian cooperation in North Korea, it is clear that these channels meet critical needs while supporting diplomatic efforts. However, humanitarian channels can be dangerous and ineffective when used with a “carrot and stick” approach, as the lives of ordinary citizens are at stake. Moreover, this approach politicizes what is otherwise a fundamental important on which to build relationships.

The Washington Opportunity

To date, the Biden administration has not changed any Trump-era regulations on aid to North Korea. In fact, the Biden administration has chosen to actively reinstate Trump-era travel restrictions, even as North Korea’s borders remain closed. These regulations could delay aid delegations when the northern borders reopen. It is therefore not surprising that attempts by this administration to speak with their North Korean counterparts have been met with silence. After all, this administration has not differentiated itself from its predecessor in this space, despite its campaign promises.

The recent COVID outbreak presents an important opportunity for Biden to adjust critical aspects of humanitarian policies, such as regulations on obstructive sanctions and travel restrictions, even before North Koreans are ready to accept aid. assistance. In line with recent policy changes toward Cuba and Venezuela, the Biden administration must now adjust its policy and stance toward North Korea in a way that not only enables, but also encourages humanitarian cooperation. It is now a matter of global and national security. It could also have the welcome side effect of reigniting dialogue with North Korea.

Congress, too, has a role to play. Because Congress grants the administration sanctioning powers, it also has the authority to clarify humanitarian exemptions under sanctions regulations. In a foresighted move, Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Andy Levin introduced the North Korea Humanitarian Aid Enhancement Act, which would remove many of the unnecessary barriers to lifesaving aid.

However, the measure was blocked by opposition from key members of Congress, such as House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee Chairman Ami Bera. Bera, a doctor by training, expressed support for COVID-19 aid to North Korea, while simultaneously blocking key regulatory fixes that would enable the effective delivery of that aid. These kinds of contradictions in US policy and posture are no longer acceptable because, in the words of Dr. a major problem, major catastrophe.”

The outbreak in North Korea demands an urgent response and is a crisis that presents the United States with a low-risk, highly rewarding opportunity to reinvigorate the most fundamental and longstanding elements of the U.S.-Korea relationship: humanitarian cooperation. . The alternative is an even more protracted global pandemic and continued diplomatic gridlock.