SEATTLE, Washington — The Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act was introduced to Congress by Democratic Representative Andy Levin of Michigan on June 15, 2020. The bill seeks to use U.S. foreign policy to better contribute to North Korean civilians’ well being, regardless of the U.S. and North Korean military tension.
What Issues Do North Korean Civilians Face?
Due to the North Korean regime’s repressive tactics and limited U.N. access, the world does not know the full extent of North Koreans’ deprivation and the public health crisis. However, from what is known, conditions are dire.
According to the U.N., more than 16% of the population lacks access to basic sanitation, particularly in the northeastern and rural areas. This increases the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases. According to the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act, more than a third of North Korean households have contaminated drinking water, and approximately 40% of North Koreans are undernourished. These desperate conditions contribute to the spread of illnesses, including multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
A lack of sanitation facilities, clean drinking water and inadequate food supplies, as well as a general prevalence of infectious illness, would be severely concerning in the best of times but are particularly critical today. These health issues contribute to North Koreans’ susceptibility to COVID-19. Due to North Korea’s public health infrastructures’ weaknesses, the widespread prevalence of COVID-19 would be disastrous if the country is not prepared.
What Would the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act Do?
Because of the limited security risk of humanitarian assistance, the act recommends that sanction enforcement should not focus on humanitarian aid. While the governments made humanitarian exceptions in the past, it is not adequate to alleviate conditions on the ground. Instead, the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act aims to streamline the bureaucratic processes that are often an obstacle for nonprofit humanitarian agencies trying to assist North Koreans.
The act recommends that the Secretary of Treasury modify North Korean Sanctions to expand the list of exempt items for export to North Korea for humanitarian purposes. To reduce the delays that many nonprofit organizations face while trying to provide aid, the act recommends that the Department of the Treasury provide fast responses to license requests.
Moreover, to balance U.S. national security and humanitarian needs, the bill recommends that specific licenses should not be required for NGOs to work with people and organizations controlled by the North Korean government. The license exceptions would be approved as needed for the humanitarian activity. However, a license is still required to work with people on the list of blocked persons and specially designated nationals.
Improving Travel Restrictions and Humanitarian Access
If the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act is passed, the Secretary of the Treasury will submit a report to Congress explaining which of the recommendations they acted or did not act on. The Secretary of the Treasury would also submit a list of licenses and exceptions approved, requested, denied or delayed. Additionally, the Secretary of the Treasury will offer clear guidance to shipping companies, customs authorities and financial institutions to clarify humanitarian exceptions to sanctions and best practices.
According to the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act, current U.S. sanctions and travel restrictions make it difficult for American employees of humanitarian organizations in North Korea to travel to North Korea. To address these issues, the act recommends considering “multi-entry special validation passports,” as well as simplifying the unique travel permit process for humanitarian work. If the bill passes, the Secretary of State will brief congressional committees on these suggestions.
In addition to changing U.S. policy, the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act recommends using the United States’ influence in the United Nations to encourage other countries to expand humanitarian exemptions to sanctions. Suggestions include removing the limit on exemption applications per organization, extending the period for humanitarian exemptions to sanctions and making the exemption application process more manageable.
Why Should the U.S. help North Korean Civilians?
According to the United Nations Bill of Rights, all people are entitled to “food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services.” While preserving U.S. interests abroad, particularly the need for mitigating nuclear proliferation, are essential, so are civilians’ needs everywhere. The proposed Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assitance Act can balance these two priorities through a selective foreign policy adjustment.