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We are now more than two years into the Trump Administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against North Korea, a sanctions regime designed to compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. This almost total embargo on the country has yet to yield any concrete progress on denuclearization. All it seems to have achieved is hurting ordinary North Koreans.

In a new report, my co-authors and I shed light on the human costs of the chosen response to North Korea's nuclear program. It is the first comprehensive investigation on the subject. We synthesize what is known today about the impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation, on the development of the country, and on women as one of the more vulnerable groups. The report was commissioned by Korea Peace Now, a women-led movement to end the Korean War.

Here is what we found, based on publicly available information:

First, sanctions are interfering with the ability of international aid groups and of the North Korean government to address the urgent and longstanding humanitarian needs of the population. What is particularly concerning is that sanctions are currently prohibiting the transfer of a wide range of humanitarian-sensitive items to North Korea, according to a report issued by the UN Panel of Experts tasked with monitoring the implementation of sanctions. The list of items the Panel reports as banned includes medical appliances, agricultural equipment, and generally any item with a metallic component, be it as small as a nail or a screw.

Second, sanctions are stifling the economic development of the country. While UN Security Council sanctions used to target only the military and the elite, since late 2016, they have started to block, one by one, every profitable North Korean export industry, directly affecting the livelihood of ordinary workers. Sanctions in 2017 also imposed a global ban on joint ventures with North Koreans and on accepting North Korean expatriate workers. These measures have resulted in the collapse of what used to be the country’s growing trade and engagement with the world, threatening the progress made since the economic crisis and famine of the 1990s. North Korean exports to China, for instance, have plunged from a high of $3 billion in 2013 to just $200 million in 2018.

Sanctions have a gendered impact

Third, sanctions have a gendered impact. They are destabilizing North Korean society in ways that disproportionately affect the economic security, physical security, and social status of women, consistent with trends observed in cross-national research of sanctioned countries. Sanctions disrupt sectors in which the majority of workers are female, such as the textile industry (82 percent) and the retail sector (89 percent). They also appear to underpin increasing violence against women and increasing instances of prostitution and human trafficking. 

Fourth, existing sanction-exemption mechanisms are insufficient to prevent negative impacts on the population. Delays and funding shortfalls to UN programs alone may have caused more than 3,900 deaths in 2018, with an estimated 3,193 of these being children under age 5 and 72 being pregnant women. This is a conservative estimate that likely represents only the tip of the iceberg, as it does not cover shortfalls in North Korea’s own capabilities. While the UN Security Council has repeatedly stated that its sanctions are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences, there is a widening gap between this mantra and the reality on the ground. Part of the problem is that UN exemptions are granted only on a case-by-case basis and under highly restrictive conditions, creating a complex administrative hurdle that even large aid organizations struggle to overcome.

We do not claim to have the final word, given the data challenges in evaluating the situation in North Korea. In light of the current evidence, however, we found that the sanctions regime raised serious humanitarian and human rights concerns.

These concerns draw on the findings of an ongoing inquiry at the United Nations on the legal principles circumscribing the use of unilateral sanctions – that is to say sanctions imposed by individual countries, as opposed to those imposed by the Security Council. A landmark study by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights found that unilateral coercive measures could infringe upon the human rights to life, health, food, and an adequate standard of living, as well as humanitarian principles such as the prohibition of collective punishment and the prohibition of the starvation of a civilian population.

The current sanctions regime against North Korea appears difficult to reconcile with international law.

Indeed, the current sanctions regime against North Korea appears difficult to reconcile with international law. The UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council have repeatedly pronounced themselves against the use of unilateral sanctions, stating that “unilateral coercive measures and legislation are contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States.” We are currently in a situation where the practice of countries regularly resorting to unilateral sanctions, including the United States against North Korea, is at odds with the interpretation that most countries make of international law.

Since the sanctions regime against North Korea includes both unilateral sanctions and UN sanctions, one question that would also have to be solved is to what extent the principles invoked apply to the Security Council. This is a complex legal question that would merit further investigation – possibly an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice. On the one hand, the UN Charter gives the Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and explicitly gives it the power to impose sanctions. On the other hand, the Council is subject to the Charter and generally applicable principles of international law, which include fundamental human rights and humanitarian norms. These norms apply to peacekeeping operations mandated by the Council, so it’s hard to see how one could sustain the argument that sanctions be exempted.

What we recommend is as follows.

First, there should be formal humanitarian and human rights assessments of the impact of sanctions by the UN and by the countries that use this policy tool. North Korea should cooperate with the relevant agencies to share data for these assessments.

Second, there should be a lifting or modification of sanctions to bring them in line with international law. There should be no resort to unlawful policy tools in the resolution of the security crisis.

Third, all sides should, in the interim, take all measures available to mitigate and ultimately eliminate the negative impact of the sanctions on the North Korean population. There are a number of steps that could be taken immediately, such as the adoption of a whitelist to systematically exempt humanitarian-sensitive items. All sides should stop politicizing humanitarian aid.

Our report is not an indictment or judgment.

Our report is not an indictment or judgment. We are merely raising awareness and concerns about the policy tools adopted in response to the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula. We did not specifically determine which sanctions would be unlawful, nor did we assign responsibility on how to best solve the security crisis. There is a wide range of mechanisms available in the UN context to address these issues, including the Security Council itself.

Instead, our open-ended recommendations are human-centric and based on the fundamental UN Charter principle that international disputes should be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law. Ultimately, all sides have a legal responsibility to the North Korean people, including the North Korean government, the Security Council, and the countries imposing unilateral sanctions.

We should not take innocents hostage on account of the policies of an authoritarian government they have little to no control over. North Koreans have rights as human beings regardless of what one side or the other believes is necessary for national security.

Henri Feron is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy. He is a co-author of “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea” (October 2019), with Kevin Gray, Ewa Eriksson, Suzy Kim, Kee Park, Marie O’Reilly and Joy Yoon. Follow him on Twitter @henriferon.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

Image: Jean H. Lee

About the Author

Henri Feron

Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy

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