A UN report released earlier this month said around 11 million people, or 43 percent of the population of North Korea, are believed to be in need of humanitarian assistance.
Malnutrition continues to be a serious concern, affecting more than one-quarter of all children in the impoverished state, according to the report, titled the “2019 Needs and Priorities Plan.”
It called for $120 million this year to provide “lifesaving” aid for the most vulnerable North Koreans -- 3.8 million people -- through programs to enhance food security, reduce malnutrition and increase access to health care, clean water and sanitation.
But there is little chance that the requested funds will be raised by the international community. Last year, humanitarian agencies working in the North collected less than a quarter of the $111 million they requested.
Basically, the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the UN in response to the recalcitrant regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs are not supposed to affect humanitarian assistance.
Yet a separate UN report recently noted that the sanctions might be having “unintended consequences” and interfering with humanitarian programs for the North.
Among the areas of concern cited in the report, drawn up by a panel of experts, were delays in receiving exemptions, delayed customs clearance, a decrease in the number of foreign suppliers and diminished funding.
The report suggested that the UN Security Council committee overseeing sanctions on North Korea review sanctions exemption requests for humanitarian efforts in a “time-bound” manner and publish a “whitelist” of certain nonsensitive items used in humanitarian operations.
It also said the UN secretary-general should ask the secretariat of the global organization to assess the humanitarian impact of the sanctions.
Still, it should be noted that international efforts to extend humanitarian aid to the North have been dampened fundamentally by its leaders’ attempt to build nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals at the expense of resources that could have been used to ease the plight of its population.
Experts estimate that Pyongyang has spent billions of dollars on developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles over the past few decades. In 2017, South Korea’s Defense Ministry put the cost of the 31 missiles test-fired by Pyongyang from December 2011, when Kim Jong-un took the helm of the regime, until July 2016 at about $97 million.
North Korea’s preoccupation with developing weapons of mass destruction has prevented international humanitarian programs for its people from gaining traction.
But the impoverished regime needs sanctions relief beyond humanitarian aid if it is to pull its population out of those dire conditions.
During his second summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi last month, Kim demanded that most of the sanctions on his regime be lifted in return for dismantling the outdated Yongbyon nuclear complex, while maintaining other parts of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in place.
With that demand rebuffed by the US, which wanted the North to do more, Pyongyang has suggested it might return to its earlier provocative mode.
Last Friday, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui announced that Pyongyang would end talks with Washington and resume missile and nuclear testing should the US push it to comply with demands it deemed unacceptable.
It has yet to be seen how far the North will go in ratcheting up tensions with the US.
In a sign of Pyongyang digging in for a prolonged deadlock in talks with Washington, its propaganda machine has repeatedly underscored the importance of “self-reliance.” The organ of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party called on provincial counties Monday to make the best use of their potential to resolve the problems and prop up their economies.
The North should pay attention to the fact that Vietnam, which is often cited as a model North Korea can follow, was able to put itself on the path to fast economic development after it accepted a range of demands from the international community in the aftermath of a massive famine in 1988. But it is hard to expect the Kim regime to cave in to international pressure to give up its nuclear arsenal, which it sees as essential to its survival.
What is needed to get Pyongyang to change course is to convince it that it cannot secure sanctions relief without taking steps toward complete denuclearization.
It is pitiful that humanitarian aid programs for North Koreans in need will continue to wither in the process.