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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)

In the meantime, political and military attention keeps rising, and dangerously on the peninsula, and no short-term solution is in sight. Tough problems in the political security and diplomatic areas continue to bedevil the relationships between North Korea's neighbor countries, particularly South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

Now, the U.N has argued, and I would myself have argued, that as a matter of principle, humanitarian aid should be extended to people who are in dire need of help, in accordance with the principle of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. This should apply to North Korea as anywhere else. The alleged vulnerable people need not be punished for their government's behavior and failures, especially when they have neither the freedom, nor the means to choose their government. The silent, voiceless masses that suffer as a result of their government's policies, and the socially vulnerable such as children and the sick, need to be assisted and not abandoned. I agree that the basic tenet of humanitarianism calls for us to extend to these people, who themselves are the primary victims, the support and compassion that they need. This sounds great, but in reality we all know that it is not so easy. Policymakers face tough domestic opinions, pressures, because humanitarian imperatives do not always triumph, especially when the country in question, like North Korea, is received as a serious military threat, or nuclear menace. So there is a sort of a dilemma in which emotions and cool reason battle over which should dictate decision and action. I think this is the reality. Still, I think it is important to emphasize the widely accepted norm in today's international community that we separate humanitarian assistance from politics.

However, this separation of aid, humanitarian aid, from politics must not be confused with another important rule of the game, and that is one of the questions I raise: the question whether in fact aid provided is delivered to the intended beneficiaries and not diverted elsewhere. In this respect, North Korea has been a tough place to operate. It has not been easy to put in place operational modalities that are sufficiently free, flexible, and transparent. But World Food Program and other U.N. agencies have raised these issues with the government, and it must be acknowledged that considerable progress has been made after patient negotiations over these years. In 1995, when U.N. humanitarian workers first arrived in Pyongyang, they were not allowed outside their hotel without escorts. Today, by 2002, WFP had opened five sub-offices, and the possibility of establishing cooperation with officials at the provincial level has improved. Today, eighty percent of the population is accessible by monitors, and a monitoring system of aid delivery is in place, and increasing access to larger areas subject to monitoring has been realized. I have distributed this map, which is accessible on the website, which shows the areas which are accessible by WFP monitors, and it also shows where several offices are located in the country. Certainly, there is room for improvement; for example, random access, or spontaneous monitoring, is not yet granted, despite our demands. But we can say, and I can say, I think, on the basis of my discussion, with reasonable confidence that today, most of the aid delivered through the U.N. agencies in North Korea reaches, more or less - I cannot vouch 100% - but more or less, those it is intended: children, orphans, pregnant women, the sick, and the elderly. I cannot speak for bilateral contributions. I have no idea how the supplies provided through bilateral channels are in fact monitored, and so forth.

One final point I'd like to make, and that is that while humanitarian aid is no substitute for political solutions, it is important to recognize, I think, that averting a humanitarian tragedy in North Korea would contribute to creating an environment that is conducive to the peace and stability of the region, and an environment that is more conducive to the peace and stability of the region, an environment more conducive to resolving the current political impasse. At least, that is our hope. Thank you very much.