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Late on the night of 29/30 August 2016, devastating floods hit six counties in North Hamgyong province. The flooding was caused by a pulse of water, created by very heavy rain, flowing down the Tumen River flood plain creating a violent torrent of water that washed away people, buildings, animals and crops. The situation was aggravated by Typhoon Lionrock raising sea lavels and preventing the flood water discharging into the East Sea/Sea of Japan. The floods lasted until 2 September. It affected 600,000 people with more than 500 being reported dead or missing.
The floods forced nearly 70,000 to flee their homes. A total of over 29,800 dwellings were damaged including the complete collapse of more than 11,600 houses. At least 900 production and public buildings were destroyed or damaged, according to sources. The scale of the flood disaster was “beyond anything experienced by local officials” said a UNICEF official at the time.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) went further, describing the devastating floods as the “biggest cataclysm” to effect the DPRK since Liberation [from the Japanese] more than 70 years ago.
There was a swift emergency response from both UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The IFRC worked through the DPRK Red Cross Society mobilising staff and volunteers from 1 September 2016 though to 11 September 2016 for immediate aid operations that included rapid assessment, evacuation, search and rescue, first aid and to distribute 7,000 non-food items.
On 13 September 2016 the IFRC released Swiss Francs (CHF) 506,810 to meet the humanitarian needs of 20,000 people.
On 20 September 2016 the IFRC launched an Emergency Appeal for CHF 15,199,723 to support 28,000 people for 12 months but quickly updated the number to be helped to 330,000 people for 12 months.
The discouraging news is that during the 14 months that have elapsed since the initial flood Emergency Appeal was launched, the IFRC has twice had to reduce the amount of money its Emergency Appeal was seeking due to lack of support from donors. Not even the initial need for coal in the winter of 2016/2017 could be addressed due to funding contraints.
The IFRC’s most recent revised Emergency Appeal seeks CHF 5,037,707 to deliver assistance and support to 110,000 people (27,500 households) which is a reduction from the 330,000 people (82,500 households) that was originally planned. This is the second revision of its Emergency Appeal budget; in January the IFRC issued its first revised Emergency Appeal which reduced the amount sought from CHF 15,199,723 to CHF 7,421,586.
Despite this latest reduction in the Emergency Appeal budget to CHF 5,037,707, which is just one-third of the amount originally planned, there is still a funding gap of CHF 250,832 in the amount needed to carry out even the reduced emergency relief. The IFRC explains that “due to low appeal coverage, the original proposed interventions are being revised in consultation with [the North Korean Red Cross Society]. Priority will be given to the most vulnerable households identified in the target municipalities, as well as vulnerabilities of individual or specific groups.”
In its needs assessment, the IFRC is concentrating on 5 areas:
- Health: This responsibility is shared. The Government of the DPRK is responsible for building new health facilities while two UN agencies, the World Food Programme (WTF) and UNICEF, are responsible for the supply of essential medicine. The IFRC plan to cover other additional needs such as supply of basic medical kits (for community clinics and midwives) and solar power systems (for heating, hot water and light). The latter are needed because of the long and very cold winter and the unreliable electricity supply infrustructure.
- WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene): In this flood emergency the main WASH element is to ensure the availability of safe drinking water. To do this requires the rehabilitation of damaged pumping stations and the contruction of new gravity fed water supply systems as an alternative to shallow wells that were contaminated or rendered unuseable. Hygiene promotion is an obvious urgent and high priority in flood affected communities until water supply and sanitation systems are restored to safe functioning.
- Shelter: In the first months, there was an immediate need to supply shelter for families whose homes were destroyed while finding the resources to build new homes and repair damaged ones.
- Disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction: The IFRC says that “affected communities had very limited preparedness for a disaster and even less capacity in disaster response as they were not exposed to disasters in recent history.”
- National Society Capacity Building: This involves a wide range of activities including replenishment of emergency items and equipment, acquiring of additional equipment (vehicles, computers, communications support, etc), and training of staff and volunteers to increase their effectiveness and capacities for the next disaster.
There is a recognition by the IFRC that UN Security Council Sanctions against the DPRK will impact its humanitarian aid operations. It notes that sanctions “will potentially increase delivery times of humanitarian aid … as all items have to be crosschecked with the sanctions item list.” It adds that “a provision for this has been included in our plans.”
 IFRC Emergency Plan of Action (EPoA) DPRK Flood in North Hamgyong (1 November 2017) – http://adore.ifrc.org/Download.aspx?FileId=175386
 Reliefweb: Report from IFRC – https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-peoples-republic-korea/democratic-people-s-republic-koreanorth-hamgyong-province-2
At a time of rapidly escalating tension on the Korean Peninsular observers are questioning whether China has begun to apply more pressure behind the scenes on the leadership in Pyongyang .
DPRK has accused President Trump of raising tensions in the region and warned that the regime would conduct a nuclear test when it sees fit, as China issued a plea to Washington not to use pre-emptive military action.
In an interview with the Associated Press in Pyongyang on 14 April, DPRK’s vice-foreign minister, Han Song-ryol said Trump’s “aggressive” tweets aimed at the regime were “causing trouble”, adding that the mounting crisis on the peninsula was now locked in a “vicious cycle”.
Han warned that DPRK would not “keep its arms crossed” in the event of a U.S. pre-emptive strike.
For its part, China issued a plea against military action in North Korea before an anticipated sixth nuclear test on 15 April to mark the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
Speaking in Beijing, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said a return to the negotiating table was the only way to avert a crisis. “Military force cannot resolve the issue,” he said, according to Reuters. “Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility.”
So what are the signs suggesting that China is more actively working to put presure on the leadership in DPRK?
On 18 February, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced the suspension of coal imports for the remainder of 2017. In subsequent press briefings, senior Chinese officials have explained that China’s coal imports from DPRK were by mid-February close to the quota stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 2321.
In a compelling 38 North article published on 5 April, Yun Sun argues that, rather than China acting to fulfill its UN obligations as the official Beijing explanation suggests, an analysis of publicly available customs data on Chinese coal imports during the first months of 2017 suggests a different story.
Assuming the data is correct, his analysis points to an “intriguing fact that [China’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and [its] Ministry of Commerce were not honest about China nearing the upper limits on North Korean coal imports set by the UNSCR 2321, since 2.67 million tons and 219 million USD are well below these limits.”
Sun Yun concludes from this that “[u]nless China has other sources of coal imports from North Korea that were not accounted for in the customs data, China unilaterally adopted punitive measures on North Korea that were not required by the UN Security Council Resolution.”
He offers two possible explanations for China’s decision to impose such a radical measure on DPRK.
First of all, two events occurred a week before the announcement of the ban “that almost certainly aroused Chinese ire with Pyongyang”:
- North Korea’s test of a Pukguksong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile on 11 February; and
- the assassination on 13 February of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who had been under Chinese protection.
He notes that “both events gave Beijing ample reasons to put more pressure on North Korea to rein in its provocative behavior.”
Second, the Chinese may have wanted to send a conciliatory signal to Washington in advance of the April 2017 summit between President Xi and President Trump, given Chinese concern over U.S.-China relations under President Trump.
The author observes that “Beijing has wanted to sweeten the pot with Trump in order to induce a friendlier U.S. policy toward China and solidify a quid-pro-quo, transactional approach on key issues important to both sides. Since the Trump administration has identified North Korea as a key national security threat, it is reasonable to infer that China’s action on North Korean coal imports was aimed at heading off harsher U.S. demands for stronger Chinese sanctions against North Korea.
“Considering the U.S.-China tensions that will form the backdrop for the summit between President Xi and Trump, Xi’s ability to show that it is punishing Pyongyang severely on coal imports could help to lower tensions with the United States and pre-empt U.S. demands on North Korea that China cannot accept, such as cutting Chinese energy and food aid.”
Whatever those U.S. demands might be, the author of the 38 North article reminds us of an important Chinese ‘red line’ as far as its relations with DPRK are concerned; “China will not go so far as to trade North Korea with U.S. for a positive China policy by Trump.” He added “[i]n fact, it is hard to imagine what [the] U.S. can offer for such a trade. However, taking some heat off the potential demands by the U.S. may well be China’s calculation.”
Two in five North Koreans are undernourished says the UN’s 2017 DPRK Needs and Priorities report published this month. It also reports that one in five North Koreans do not have access to clean water and adequate sanitation.
“Amidst political tensions”, the report says, “an estimated 18 million people across DPRK continue to suffer from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services.”
More than 70 per cent of the population – including 1.3 million children under the age of five – depend on the Government for rations of cereal and potatoes provided by the country’s Public Distribution System (PDS).
“Furthermore, 10.5 million people, or 41 per cent of the total population, are undernourished.” The report notes, however, that “there has been steady improvement since 2000, in part as a result of humanitarian assistance [Italics added. Editor].”
During 2016, average monthly PDS rations were reduced from 380 grams/person/day to 300 grams/person/day between July and September. This is the equivalent of just over 50 percent of the daily calorific requirements for an adult. Fluctuations over the year are normal, but overall, PDS rations are consistently lower than the Government target of an average of 573 grams/person/day.
The UN report finds that health service delivery remains inadequate, with many areas not equipped with sufficient facilities, equipment or medicines to meet people’s basic health needs. Those most at risk from the consequences of a lack of access to health care include under-five children, pregnant women, people living with disabilities and the elderly.
Diarrhoea and pneumonia are the two main causes of death amongst under-five children in DPRK. Diarrhoea is mainly caused by lack of safe drinking water, poor sanitation and hygiene practices, and is also a contributing factor for childhood pneumonia and malnutrition.
These humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the frequent natural disasters that have hit the country; floods and droughts have sometimes occurred in the same year. The most recent natural disaster to effect the country were the devastating North Hamgyong floods in September 2016 – see earlier blog stories here and here.
The UN report identifies a funding requirement of US$114 million in 2017. This requirement is broken down by sector as:
- US$39 million – Nutrition
- US$37 million – Health
- US$30 million – Food Security
- US$8 million – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)
The report said that international sanctions had affected humanitarian efforts by making it more difficult for agencies to transfer funds and equipment to DPRK. Although the international sanctions imposed on DPRK clearly exempt humanitarian activities, they have unintentionally caused disruptions to humanitarian operations. Since 2013, banking channels have been regularly disrupted, with agencies unable to transfer funds into the country. Prolonged disruptions have forced agencies to reprioritise implementation of life-saving activities, as well as cancelling or postponing others.
Aid agencies are also faced with delays in procurement as a result of additional requirements for licensing, as well as the need to ensure that equipment or supplies are not on the sanctions list.
The UN report also noted a “radical decline in donor funding since 2012”.
“As a result agencies have been forced to significantly reduce the assistance they provide. Consequently, critical needs of some of the most vulnerable have not been met.
“More predictable funding is urgently required to ensure the immediate needs of the most vulnerable are addressed.”
Exploring the impact of the latest UN sanctions which impose a limit on coal exports from DPRK (Part 2)
In this second part of an exploration of the impact of the latest UN sanctions we quote at length from Professor Andrei Lankov who is one of the best informed commentators on life and politics in North Korea.
In a [June 2016] opinion piece written for Al Jazeera he observed that times have never been so tough for North Koreans. UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2270 had just imposed significant new sanctions on DPRK which severely impacted its ability to engage in foreign trade, limiting as it did its export of minerals, particularly coal.
In addition to that, President Obama had signed a new Executive Order on March 15 that targeted, among other North Koreans, those who have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from DPRK, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. Sending labourers overseas is another important source of foreign income for the country.
Five months after Professor Lankov wrote that article the situation worsened considerably when, on 30 November, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2321 in response to the DPRK conducting its fifth nuclear weapons test.
We described in a previous post how this latest Security Council resolution imposed a cap on the “livelihood exemption” for coal exports, halving at a stroke the amount of income the DPRK can earn from the export of coal, the DPRK’s most important source of foreign income.
The “livelihood exemption” written into UNSCR 2270 at the insistence of China and Russia was supposed to mitigate adverse humanitarian consequences of sanctions for the North Korean population. We wrote here about how that exemption was allegedly exploited by China in the latter part of 2016, suggesting that the motives of China in calling for this exemption in UNSCR 2270 were as much commercial as humanitarian.
The fifth nuclear test carried out by DPRK in September 2016 hardened attitudes in the UN Security Council and even China and Russia had little option but to sign up to tougher sanctions in UNSCR 2321. The cap limiting the humanitarian exemption for coal exports from the DPRK being the most significant of those tough new sanctions.
Although this latest sanctions resolution underlined that “measures imposed by this resolution are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK”, in the words of Professor Lankov “humanitarian declarations by diplomats should not be taken at face value: Of course sanctions will hit the vast majority of North Koreans, and this is probably the intention.”
He added that “average North Koreans will be hit hardest by sanctions…. Miners, engineers and truck drivers will be the victims of the latest round of North Korea sanctions.” It is from this standpoint that he wrote the comments in his Al Jazeera opinion piece that are quoted below.
“Let us start with the ban on the export of minerals”, he wrote. “If this ban is fully and comprehensively implemented, it will mean that North Korean exports will at least [halve] in a matter of a year. Coal and iron mines will stop.
“Of course, top North Korean officials who are getting a great deal of their profits from these mines – often privately operated – will take a serious hit. Perhaps they will not even be able to afford a new European car, or a new flat in downtown Pyongyang.
“However, thousands of engineers and workers toiling in the mines will find themselves out of work. They are not going to become officially unemployed because there is no such thing in North Korea.
“However, while they currently receive large salaries by North Korean standards – a good miner, employed in a private coal mine, can make up to $100 a month – these salaries are paid by mine operators out of the profits from exports.
“If these exports are halted, the miners will most probably revert to the official basic wage, somewhere in the region of 30 US cents to 50 US cents a month.”
While exports of iron ore are now severely limited and a cap placed on coal exports, the DPRK’s most important source of hard currency, we also saw in this earlier post that the latest sanctions resolution has banned completely the export of non-ferrous metals such as copper, nickel, silver and zinc which together provided the DPRK with another $100 million a year in export income.
Professor Lankov observes of the mining sector in the DPRK that “it makes sense to keep in mind that we are talking about a large number of people: Mineral extraction has always been one of North Korea’s largest industries. As usual, it will not only be miners, engineers and lorry drivers who will be victims of North Korean pit closures.”
“Other people caught up in this will be those who serve mining communities” he said, “be it their town shop keepers (largely middle-aged women), doctors and nurses (usually paid for by patients themselves), as well as many people in other service industries.
“Let us also not forget that a significant part of this mining sector is owned by private investors. Most of these new bourgeoisie will probably go bankrupt. The result being not only for them and their families but also for people who serve the needs of this new rich – be they waitresses in up-market restaurants, English language tutors or drivers – is predictable and depressing.
“The same applies to workers overseas. They are often described as “slave labourers”, but it is telling that the majority of these supposed “slaves” have to pay a hefty bribe to be selected for working overseas. There is nothing surprising about this, since, for the average North Korean with little money and few connections, two or three years of hard work overseas provides the best realistic opportunity to get out of the daily grind.
“This is not to say that tough sanctions are necessarily bad and should not be introduced. Nasty things are done – and, indeed, often have to be done – to serve the greater good or, at least, some national interests. Perhaps, there are times when it is even morally justified to carpet bomb a city.
“Yet even while defending such a course of action as rational and necessary, it is dishonest to pretend that it will not harm civilians. Let us be frank: the average North Korean will also bear the brunt of the sanctions.”
 Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. He is the author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.
 The editors of this blog do not share that view. Nor, do we believe, does Professor Lankov. He makes that comment to argue that, while UN member states and their diplomats may defend as being rational and necessary “[doing] nasty things to serve the greater good”, “it is dishonest [of them] to pretend that it will not harm civilians.” On that point Professor Lankov and the editors of this blog are in full agreement.
Exploring the impact of the latest UN sanctions which impose a limit on coal exports from DPRK (Part 1)
On November 30, 2016, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted resolution 2321. UNSCR 2321 became the sixth sanctions resolution issued by the UNSC that is targeted t the DPRK. The resolution imposes tough new sanctions on the DPRK in response to its nuclear test on 9 September 2016.
The new sanctions measures involve mostly marginal changes to the previous sanctions resolution, UNSCR 2270. The main innovation in UNSCR 3221 is the imposition of a $400 million cap on the “livelihood purposes” exemption for coal exports. This is a 60 percent reduction on the current $1 billion value of coal exported by the DPRK. The resolution also bans completely the export of non-ferrous metals such as copper, nickel, silver and zinc which together provided the DPRK with another $100 million a year in export income. Coal exports are the country’s most valuable export commodity and one of its only sources of hard currency.
In a previous blog post it was noted that China is believed to be the only country buying North Korean coal and that it had increased coal imports from that source during 2016, despite imposing a temporary ban on imports in December of that year. Any action by China to reduce its imports of coal in 2017 will thus severely impact DPRK.
UNSC sanctions resolutions are deliberately framed to try to avoid adverse humanitarian consequences for the targeted country’s civilian population. However Rudiger Frank questions the likely impact of a $500 million cut in the DPRK’s income if the sanctions in resolution 2321 are robustly applied. He notes that, unless the UNSC believes that DPRK has always used 100 percent of its income from foreign trade for funding its nuclear and missile programmes, hard choices about import priorities – food or WMD – will have to be made by the regime. Seen in that context, he quotes the passage in the resolution about “Underlining also that measures imposed by this resolution are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK” and suggests it will sound “pretty cynical”.
NK News reports that on 17 January, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) approved 2017’s first humanitarian aid shipment to DPRK. The MoU said it would allow the nonprofit Eugene Bell Foundation to ship multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) medication to the DPRK.
Other South Korean NGOs questioned the “fairness” of MoU decision. The MoU approved humanitarian aid from Eugene Bell twice last year, and it is the only NGO based in the South which sent help to the North in 2016.
In contrast, the MoU disallowed the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (KNCCK) from meeting the North Korean side in a third country to discuss flood repair cooperation in September.
As a result, KNCCK, a confederation of 54 local nongovernmental organizations, sent relief funds for flood victims to the International Red Cross (IRC).
“It’s a good thing that Eugene Bell can still provide support… But we also are considering the issue of fairness, which is obvious to everyone,” Kwak Young-joo, a representative of KNCCK, told NK News.
“South Korean NGOs providing aid to the North are ready to send support, but we’ve suspended our activities for a long time,” Kwak said. “I am frustrated, but I am expecting to see changes this year.”
In an October 2013 article in East Asia Forum, academic and NGO field worker Emma Campbell argued that the sanctions regime in place to curtail the DPRK’s nuclear program, and to tackle the appalling human rights record, threatens to make the lives of the most vulnerable even worse.
Laying responsibility for the DPRK’s current predicament squarely at the feet of the North Korean regime, she reminds us, however, that this is a “world of international rights and norms.” When constructing policy toward the DPRK she notes, “there is a responsibility to prevent a worsening of the plight of the North Korean people. It appears that the ongoing sanctions regime is failing in this.”
The article gave examples of the perverse and chilling effects on humanitarian aid efforts in the DPRK caused by the unintended consequences of sanctions, particularly sanctions targeted at banks dealing with the DPRK. Sadly, her description of the effects of sanctions in 2013 “constraining the actions of humanitarian NGOs trying to carry out life-saving activities inside the DPRK” are still having the same effect in 2016.
The most recent example of this has just been played out in South Korea where delays by the ROK government in granting permits to export three containers of essential specialist medical supplies, threatened the lives of 1,500 MDR-TB patients in the North who are being treated in clinics supported by the Eugene Bell Foundation (EBF). This sorry tale and its outcome can be followed on this blog here and here.
To underscore the difficulties NGOs can face, there is a telling comment in a leaked confidential internal EBF memo, dated 19 February 2016. In the memo, EBF said it had another option: to purchase the medications on the international market instead of from the Republic of Korea and to have them shipped directly to the DPRK. This would obviate the need to apply for ROK export permits but would also create a host of other potential problems, EBF noted. Not least of these being that EBF would have to wire funds from its bank accounts to foreign entities to pay for shipments to North Korea. Non-Korean pharmaceutical companies would probably refuse to take EBF’s order as doing so could be a technical violation of sanctions.
The concern expressed by EBF about possible “technical violation of sanctions” had been reinforced the previous day when the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 was signed into law on February 18 by President Obama.
It has been noted by legal experts on sanctions that the Act would implement extraterritorial ‘secondary sanctions’ that could impact a variety of importers and exporters, and potentially other companies such as freight forwarders, vessel owners, and insurers who do business in countries that engage in trade with North Korea, such as China. The threats to humanitarian efforts in the North have likely worsened as a result.