North Korea is among the 37 countries the Food and Agriculture Organization said is in need of outside food assistance because of problems caused by El Niño. The authoritarian regime rejects help from most countries, making it difficult to support the 18 million North Koreans who do not have a sufficiently diverse diet. To make matters worse, recent U.N. and U.S. sanctions against high-level North Korean officials are hampering the ability of aid groups and U.N. agencies to provide humanitarian aid.
Banks are withholding fund transfers to aid agencies in the country and China to hold shipments containing needed aid supplies, Agence France-Presse reported, over concerns that any action could violate sanctions. These problems, and an overall shortage of funding, mean that the World Food Program reached only 641,530 people in April, well short of its goal of 2.2 million people over three years. Sanctions are not intended to affect aid in North Korea, but U.N. agencies and aid groups, such as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Save the Children, are feeling the effects.
“Despite the humanitarian exemption, private-sector companies such as banks, shippers and other suppliers are increasingly declining or hesitating to provide services, which is affecting the ability of humanitarian agencies to operate,” an unnamed aid agency working in the North told AFP. “As time passes and a solution is not found, the operational difficulties will increase.”
To make matters worse, there is evidence that North Korean officials are confiscating some of the U.N. food aid that does manage to make it into the country. Ranking military members and government officials are selling powdered milk meant for babies on the black market, reported Yonhap news agency, South Korea’s largest news agency. Recent defectors from North Korea said that U.N. packaged foods can be found for sale in markets in Pyongyang and other parts of the country.
It’s a common problem with authoritarian regimes and armed groups, but the thefts come at a time when the need for aid is especially high.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed tougher penalties against North Korea in March. It was a major breakthrough between the U.S. and North Korea’s main trading partner China. More people in the country were added to the list of those facing sanctions, and it was agreed that cargo traveling to and from North Korea would be inspected. Given China’s connection, the deal meant that it would have to take on the burden of inspecting North Korean shipments.
The U.S. expanded its sanctions against North Korean officials in early July, naming leader Kim Jong Un for the first time. Such steps are meant to add further pressure on the regime for its human rights abuses and to stop progress towards the development of nuclear weapons.
“It is not an easy thing to identify those responsible for these kinds of abuses within the North Korean system. This is not a government that publishes a phone directory of its personnel or an organizational chart,” a senior Obama administration official said Wednesday morning. “It sends a message to people within the North Korean regime … that if you become involved in abuses like running concentration camps or hunting down defectors we will know who you are.”
That message sent by the recent sanctions is also leading to a conservative stance by China and banks. North Korea was designated as a “prime money laundering concern” by the U.S. Treasury Department in June.
The problems are similar to the challenges seen in Somalia. Banks have slowly shut down operations involving the sending of remittances to the country over concerns that money could be funding the terrorist group al-Shabab. When famine struck the country in 2010, food aid was slow to be disbursed and did not make it to some regions again due to al-Shabab concerns.