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The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)


Thank you very much Peter. Now we move on to our final speaker of the evening who will give us a global view, we are anticipating, on humanitarian problems in and assistance to North Korea - Mr. Kenzo Oshima of the United Nations.


Thank you very much, and thank you for the invitation to be on the panel this evening.

Two crises with the potential to threaten the peace and security of the world dominate our attention at the moment: Iraq and North Korea. The development or suspicion of development of weapons of mass destruction is central to these two crises. Which one of these poses a more immediate and direct threat, as well as how to deal with the regimes of the two countries, whether through a change with regime change or change without regime change have been a subject of intense debate.

On the other hand, the humanitarian dimension of the crises has received relatively little attention in the media and public debate. Policymakers in capitols seem to be somewhat reluctant at the moment to discuss these issues openly. But the fact is, as has already been highlighted; humanitarian aspects are no less preoccupying in Iraq and Korea because of their far-reaching implications. I therefore welcome this panel, organized by the Asia Society and the Korea Society, to focus on this aspect.

If I dwell a little bit on comparing Iraq and North Korea situations: Iraq and North Korea have about the same sized populations - twenty-two, twenty-three million. And the U.N. became involved in the humanitarian operations at about the same time in both countries, and that is in the mid- 1990s. Of course, Iraq is placed under United Nations sanctions. And North Korea is not. Although bilaterally, it is under sanctions by the United States. Despite this, or rather because of this, and because Iraq is an oil-rich country and North Korea is not, humanitarian involvement is much stronger - happens to be much stronger - in Iraq than in North Korea, both in terms of the financial resources and the size of the humanitarian staff involved. In Iraq, over forty billion dollars has been spent for the humanitarian supplies and operations, and the United Nations authorized humanitarian exemptions of sanctions known as the Oil for Food Program over the past seven years. And one-thousand-plus international staff and three thousand, five hundred national staff are engaged to implement this program in Iraq.

In contrast, in North Korea, less that fifty international staff, and a small number of national staff provided by North Korean government, are involved to look after U.N. humanitarian programs, totaling about one billion dollars of the same period of seven years.

North Korea, of course, as many people know, is one country where information and transparency are such scarce commodities. But the outside world has come to know that North Korean people are suffering - suffer -from chronic food shortages, and that the country faces adire economic situation, and the situation is fast deteriorating. Famines exacted human tolls a few years ago, and the U.S. aid administrator documented this in detail in his recent book, entitled The Great North Korean Famine. Large numbers of hungry and desperate people have moved across borders in search of food and for life. Some of them have sought asylum in the south and other countries, going, in the process, through all sorts of dramas that have been widely publicized. One might ask, where does all this lead?

Indeed, many questions are asked. I am asked, also, a number of questions by my journalist colleagues, academic friends, and even governmental colleagues. First of course, is the question: how desperate, how acute, is the humanitarian situation in North Korea now, and what is the prospect for the future? What is the real reality there? The second question that is often asked is, how is the current political tension over nuclear issues impacting on the funding of humanitarian programs? Should donor countries keep helping North Korea while its government is engaged in nuclear program development and other unacceptable behavior? Third, it is often asked, should aid to North Korea be limited to humanitarian relief, or should it extend to more long-term, more developmental projects? Fourth, does humanitarian aid given to North Korea reach the intended targets? And how can you be sure that aid is not diverted, let's say, to the military or elsewhere? Is it really getting to the people, to whom it is intended? And what kind of access and monitoring systems are in place to ensure accountability? This question is often asked, and this is a concern of donor governments. First, what is the implication of the worsening humanitarian situation in North Korea, on peace and stability and security in the peninsula and beyond? So these, and other questions that may be raised, will need some answers. These questions raise fundamental issues of policy and principles that policy planners have to grapple with.