It’s Time to Reexamine U.S. Sanctions on North Korea

Last week Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Andy Levin, both Democrats, reintroduced a bicameral bill that would reduce roadblocks standing in the way of lifesaving aid to the North Korean people and expedite humanitarian travel permissions for groups involved in humanitarian activities. The legislation puts forward concrete solutions to mitigate the unintended consequences of a North Korea policy that is overly reliant on economic warfare. It also poses fundamental questions about whether U.S. policy toward North Korea is ethically justifiable or merits a more sensible approach.

The Markey-Levin bill presents a stark picture of North Korea that is out of sight for most Americans but visible to humanitarian organizations working with North Koreans. More than 40 percent of North Koreans are undernourished and the growth of one out of every five children under the age of 5 is stunted. One in three households lacks clean water. According to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s latest report, deaths by starvation are rising, as are the number of young and elderly North Koreans begging because their families cannot support them.

The North Korean regime deserves condemnation for these conditions, but the international community, led by the United States, also must bear some responsibility. Washington has been a champion of unilateral and multilateral sanctions against the North Korean regime in response to its nuclear weapons program and human rights violations, especially after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapons in 2006. According to the Congressional Research Service’s March 2020 report, the U.S. president holds a broad range of powers under the National Emergencies Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to limit economic activities between the United States and North Korea. Between 2004 and 2019, Congress passed eight provisions into law that further prevent trade and financial transactions with North Korea. Typically a presidential waiver is included in these measures, but evoking them will have political costs. The net effect is the stigmatization of humanitarian activities inside North Korea.

Even delivery of simple water filtration systems have become subject to waivers from the United Nations. According to Daniel Jasper of American Friends Service Committee, “clean drinking water projects for people in North Korea have often been held up by U.S. unilateral sanctions because they’re considered ‘development assistance’ instead of ‘humanitarian assistance.’” Such arbitrary measures make it difficult to address human needs and for NGOs to plan ahead and operate.

Read the full article in The Diplomat.

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