With an area of 120,540 km², North Korea is roughly the same size as the US state of Pennsylvania. North Korea is the sixth-largest country on the Korean Peninsula and borders on both China and Russia. North Korea has a population of approximately 25.6 million people, though this is highly contested due to their closed borders and lack of reliable census data. Alongside the significant human costs associated with decades of oppressive rule and economic sanctions, North Korea is a startling example of the disastrous impact that a heavily sanctioned nation can experience.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was officially founded in 1948, when it was split from South Korea. Since then, the nation has been ruled by the iron fist of the Kim Dynasty, and is known for its state-enforced isolation and oppression of its people. North Korea has long been an international pariah, and the US government has imposed several rounds of powerful economic sanctions since the end of the Korean War in 1953. These sanctions have depleted the North Korean economy and stunted its development.
The reverberating effects of widespread poverty and lack of access to basic goods has placed a significant burden upon the shoulders of the North Korean people. Aside from mass starvation and malnutrition, another key challenge faced by North Koreans is the lack of access to electricity and other basic modern amenities. According to the World Bank, 84 percent of North Koreans live without electricity, and access to fuel, clothes, healthcare and education is also limited.
The North Korean government keeps a tight reign on its people’s access to information, media, and international travel. It also exerts a high degree of control over its small private sector, which is largely tied to either the state or military. North Koreans are monitored and restricted from engaging in international trade and movement, making it nearly impossible for them to access the outside world and its resources.
International relations expert Gillian Chung believes that the current North Korean regime is unlikely to change in the near future given the oppressive nature of the government. “The government will do whatever it takes to maintain control and power. This means that the economic and rights situation for North Korean citizens is unlikely to improve in the immediate future, as any progress would suggest a weakening of the current power structure,” she said.
Despite the admirable efforts of NGOs, economic sanctions are the only real lever of power that international organizations have when it comes to influencing the North Korean government’s behaviour. Unfortunately, decades of intense sanctions have had little effect on the regime’s attitude and policies, and have made life incredibly difficult for the North Korean people.
It is clear that North Korea’s people are bearing the brunt of the nation’s isolation and poverty. If the international community is to play a role in improving the lives of North Koreans, then it is important to recognize the power of interconnectedness, and to consider the possibility of lifting some of the long-standing economic sanctions in order to provide a glimmer of hope for the North Korean people.
The Humanitarian Assistance
One of the main challenges faced by North Koreans is the lack of access to basic necessities such as food, water, and medicine. The deep poverty of the nation means that options for relief are often scarce due to scarce resources and a lack of access to international aid organizations.
A recent UN report on North Korea estimates that nearly 10 million people – almost 40 percent of the population – is in need of food aid. More broadly, 80 percent of the population is believed to be in need of aid due to food shortages and a lack of access to basic services. The report further notes that the number of people in need of assistance has been steadily increasing since the 2017 famine.
In response to these urgent needs, the UN and a number of international NGOs have undertaken projects to provide humanitarian assistance to North Koreans. These organizations have focused on providing food aid, medical supplies, and assistance with sanitation and education – all vital components of a healthy society. Unfortunately, many of these projects are hampered or blocked outright by the North Korean government, making it difficult to ensure adequate levels of aid.
Efforts to address this lack of access are underway. NGO World Without Orphans, for example, is currently leading a project to provide medical aid and address the orphan crisis in North Korea. Similarly, Catholic charity Caritas International is helping to bring aid to vulnerable North Koreans through its ‘Giving for Life’ project. In addition to providing basic necessities, these projects also seek to promote inter-Korean dialogue and understanding.
Developing a New Perspective
North Korea’s relationship to the global community isn’t just about sanctions and humanitarian aid. Countries around the world are slowly developing a new perspective on North Korea, one which looks not just at the military and political situation of the nation, but also its rich cultural heritage and potential for positive progress.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), for example, has taken steps to ensure that North Korean heritage sites are preserved and shared with the world. In 2014, the agency launched a project to survey North Korean heritage sites, with the intent of identifying and promoting the nation’s unique cultural heritage.
Similarly, China has been actively involved in the North Korea topic and was a driving force behind the now stalled denuclearization talks. China has encouraged North Korea to open up its economy and explore new relationships with partners abroad. The Chinese government has also encouraged cultural exchanges between the two countries, offering many North Koreans opportunities to learn new skills, gain experience, and gain access to a more developed market.
The U.S.-based humanitarian organization Mercy Corps is also at the forefront of providing cultural exchanges and economic opportunities for North Koreans. The organization focuses on providing North Koreans with access to education, skills training, and financial opportunities to tap into new markets and explore unique career paths. This project also helps to foster a peaceful unification between North and South Korea.
The International Response
Despite the numerous challenges facing North Korea, the international community has responded with both criticism and support. The United Nations Security Council, for example, has called for the full implementation of sanctions against North Korea and has condemned its ongoing military testing.
In contrast, other international bodies such as the International Red Cross and the European Union have been more critical of the harsh sanctions regime and instead advocated for more humanitarian aid and engagement with North Korea. This approach has been driven partly by the recognition of the dire situation facing the North Korean people and the need to provide them with some relief.
The development of an inter-Korean cooperation mechanism is perhaps one of the most promising ways to ensure the long-term stability of the Korean Peninsula. This mechanism would involve the participation of all international actors, including the U.S. and China, and would seek to foster dialogue and cooperation between North and South Korea. Such a mechanism would also ensure that North Korea’s human rights situation is not overlooked by the international community.
A Path Towards Peace?
It is undeniable that North Koreans are currently facing immense suffering due to oppressive rule and long-standing economic sanctions. This can only be remedied through improving living standards and creating more opportunities for engagement with the outside world. Unfortunately, the lack of unified action from the global community has so far contributed to the country’s isolation and further entrenches both the economic sanctions and oppressive rule.
It is imperative that the international bodies involved in the North Korean issue come together to develop a cohesive plan for how best to work together to address the current situation. A multi-lateral approach to the issue could bring about greater understanding and more effective solutions for North Koreans. Such an approach would provide a clearer path towards peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula, and would ensure that North Korea’s people are not forgotten in the pursuit of international diplomatic relations.
A Changed Landscape
Since the establishment of North Korea, the nation has been predominantly isolated from the global community. But in recent years, a new approach to North Korea is emerging, as humanitarian organizations and international bodies such as the United Nations are working to find new approaches to engagement with the isolated nation.
This shift in attitude towards North Korea has been driven by a newfound understanding of the unique challenges facing North Korean citizens. A new approach is needed, one which recognizes the immense suffering of the North Korean people, and one which seeks to provide them with more access to the outside world. The changes that the world has seen in recent years are encouraging, but there is still much work to be done before North Korea can begin to turn the corner.
A Vision For The Future
The international community must come together to create a unified vision for the future of North Korea and its people. This will require a multi-lateral approach which recognizes the rights of the North Korean people and seeks to provide them with the opportunity to access the resources of the outside world. This could include lifting some of the economic sanctions which have had such a devastating impact on the nation, and providing more access to humanitarian assistance, education and job opportunities.
Of course, a crucial element of this vision will be a commitment to peace and a recognition that North Korea’s status as a nuclear nation is an impediment to future growth. In order to avoid a heightened risk of armed conflict, world leaders will need to agree on a viable strategy to de-escalate tensions and ensure that North Korea can embark upon a path of peace, security and development.
A New Era of Engagement
While progress towards a peaceful resolution for North Korea remains elusive, there is growing hope for a new era of engagement. With international bodies such as the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and China all taking a more active role in the issue, there is a sense that real progress can be made.
The next steps in ensuring that North Korea is finally able to turn the corner will require significant changes to the nation’s existing policies, as well as a growing understanding of the unique challenges facing its people. International unity and the recognition of North Korea’s potential are essential if a credible and lasting solution is to be found. With the right approach, North Korea could finally take its place among the world’s nations.