North Korea faces protracted humanitarian crises despite zero COVID-19 cases reported

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Farmers at work in South Hwanghae province, North Korea. Photo by: REUTERS / Damir Sagolj

CANBERRA — Despite no official reports of COVID-19 cases within North Korea, sanctions imposed by the U.S. and U.N. Security Council combined with a “forgotten crisis” of an estimated 11 million people affected by drought and malnourishment last year has created a dire humanitarian situation for the population of almost 26 million people.

“The regime knows a pandemic could have disastrous impact.”

— Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings, associate director of research, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership

In January the country closed its borders to prevent an outbreak, along with schools and other public spaces. In its COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, the United Nations has identified that the health system in North Korea lacked many supplies along with electricity, water, and sanitation. Nine million people are estimated to have limited access to essential health services.

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“This is why North Korea’s response to COVID-19 was quick and strict — the regime knows a pandemic could have disastrous impact,” Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings, associate director of research at the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, told Devex.

Limitations on media and foreign presence in the country prevents a complete picture of what is happening within the North Korean borders and how the most vulnerable people are being protected — with reports suggesting COVID-19 may already be infecting and killing people. But UNSC has been passing exemptions related to COVID-19 and humanitarian aid for North Korea since the pandemic began, understanding the potential for disaster.

In a new report from the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, “Humanitarian Aid in North Korea: Needs, Sanctions and Future Challenges,” Zadeh-Cummings puts the case forward that exemptions should be part of a permanent plan of action that will enable governments, multilateral institutions, and humanitarian agencies to deliver support to North Korea regardless of politics.

“It’s important to remember that North Korea is not just nukes and the Kim regime,” she said. “We must not forget the humanity of the North Korean people, even though we cannot freely communicate with them.”

“Humanitarian need is widespread even during normal life.”

— Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings, associate director of research, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership

The challenge in North Korea

According to the report, North Korea is in the midst of a protracted, long-term situation of humanitarian need “rooted in political and economic choices by the North Korean regime.” But it also says this is “not currently a situation of immediate crisis.”

“If we understand crisis as a time where normal life is severely disrupted, North Korea doesn’t quite fit that because humanitarian need is widespread even during normal life,” Zadeh-Cummings explained.

“There’s an overarching daily vulnerability, where things are better than they were during the famine of the mid-1990s, but nutritional, health, and sanitation concerns persist. An event like an outbreak of disease or a natural hazard could then push a population that is already at risk into the crisis zone,” she said.

Any disasters, including an outbreak of COVID-19, risk pushing North Korea over the edge from near-crisis to crisis, and sanctions add to the risk by affecting the ability for humanitarian agencies to deliver programs.

The limited information available means that less is known about risks that North Koreans face today.

“Humanitarian agencies have been in North Korea for nearly 25 years, and they’ve been able to pull together some really interesting data and have made great strides in their work with the North Korean authorities to be able to gather information,” Zadeh-Cummings said.

“However, the limitations are that North Koreans cannot freely talk with the outside world. We’re missing information from large chunks of society, like prisoners in camps, that likely have high amounts of humanitarian need.”

Preventing a humanitarian crisis

Through the collation of information available, eight recommendations are made in the report to monitor the situation in North Korea and prevent a humanitarian crisis:

1. The UNSC should continuously monitor and engage with humanitarian agencies to understand, and systematically capture, sanctions' impact on aid efforts;

2. The North Korean government should allow access to humanitarian and UN agencies, both resident and nonresident groups;

3. The US government should redesign the exemption and travel ban process to reduce waiting times and administrative burden;

4. All governments should not allow political considerations to interfere with the exemptions approval and implementation process;

5. Secondary sanctions causing low-risk appetite to banks and suppliers should be addressed through a recognized banking channel;

6. Donors should fund humanitarian programs in North Korea to ensure gains made over the last two decades are not lost;

7. The humanitarian community should closely monitor levels of need from available documentation and insights from other organizations operating inside the country; and

8. Humanitarian agencies should invest in evidence-based advocacy to demonstrate impact levels of sanctions on delivery of humanitarian aid.

Among these recommendations, Zadeh-Cummings considers the recommendations for the North Korean government to be the priority.

“The political and economic decisions by the government create and perpetuate humanitarian needs,” she said. “But that doesn’t give other countries or the wider international community a pass to also negatively impact the humanitarian situation inside the country.”

For the humanitarian sector, securing funding for work in the country is expected to be a major risk in achieving the recommendations.

“The Humanitarian Country Team inside the DPRK have faced funding shortfalls for years,” Zadeh-Cummings said. “To be able to even attempt to navigate the sanctions exemptions process and find space to work inside the country, agencies need money to do their work.”

But the impact on vulnerable groups inside the country is why she said humanitarian agencies should keep making inroads into North Korea, and why they should be providing evidence that simply adding humanitarian exemptions on sanctions isn’t enough to ensure sanctions don’t harm humanitarian efforts.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.