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New Report: How International Sanctions on North Korea Harm Women & Prevent Humanitarian Aid

Web ExclusiveNovember 15, 2019
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A new report shows that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are having adverse consequences on humanitarian aid and economic development in the country, with a disproportionate impact on women. The report, titled “Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea,” was commissioned by Korea Peace Now! and produced by a panel of independent experts. Its authors say it is the first comprehensive assessment of the human impact of sanctions against North Korea. According to the report’s findings, existing U.N. mechanisms to exempt humanitarian-related items from sanctions have failed to prevent negative impacts, and delays and funding shortfalls may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. We speak with the report’s authors, Joy Yoon and Henri Féron, as well as Christine Ahn, the international coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now! She is also the founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a new report which shows that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are having adverse consequences on humanitarian aid and economic development in the country, with a disproportionate impact on women. The report, titled “Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea,” was commissioned by Korea Peace Now! and produced by a panel of independent experts. The report’s authors say it is the first comprehensive assessment of the human impact of sanctions against North Korea. According to the report’s findings, existing U.N. mechanisms to exempt humanitarian-related items have failed to prevent negative impacts, and delays and funding shortfalls may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by three guests. Joy Yoon is co-author of the report. She lived for 10 years in North Korea with her family. Through her nonprofit, Ignis Community, she provides medical treatment to children with developmental disabilities such as autism and cerebral palsy. Henri Féron also is co-author of the report, legal scholar and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. And Christine Ahn is back with us. She’s international coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now!, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

JOY YOON: Thank you.

HENRI FÉRON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Joy Yoon, let’s begin with you. When it comes to sanctions, many people, among them peace activists, feel that sanctions are a nonviolent way to deal with a conflict between nations, that sanctions are better than hot war. What is your response? And what is the level of sanctions the U.S. has imposed on North Korea?

JOY YOON: As you stated, sanctions should be nonviolent. However, what we’re seeing on the ground, as a humanitarian worker, is that sanctions are not nonviolent. In fact, the common people in North Korea are suffering as a result of these sanctions, particularly sanctions that are affecting the way that medical equipment is able to get inside the country, as well as businesses, that it directly affects women’s ability to provide for their families.


JOY YOON: For example, the textile factories, about 82% of them are women that work inside, and this has been banned by the sanctions. There’s no exports going out from the textile factories. There’s also no exports from the fishing industry. And these are large industries where females, women, are employed. And we all know that when women are employed, they actually use their wealth to support the family.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Joy, can you explain what countries are impacted by the sanctions? In other words, is there no country in the world that can now trade with North Korea without facing punitive actions by the U.S. government?

JOY YOON: Well, actually, I’ll let Henri answer that question, because he’s the legal adviser.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Henri, please.

HENRI FÉRON: So, the current — currently, North Korea is under a complex set of sanctions that includes both U.N. sanctions and as well as unilateral sanctions by specific countries. U.N. sanctions amount now to an almost complete ban on any trade or investment with North Korea. U.S. sanctions focus specifically on the financial aspect of things. Basically, any bank that still wants to trade in U.S. dollars should not have any dealings with North Korea-related financial transactions, that, net, together, makes it extremely difficult for Korea — for North Korea to have any form of engagement or trade with the outside world. It’s basically cut off North Korea from the world economy, affecting, of course, the livelihood of everybody who’s living in there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, when did the U.N. impose sanctions on North Korea, such wide-ranging economic sanctions on North Korea?

HENRI FÉRON: Those wide-ranging sanctions started — originally, sanctions against North Korea were so-called smart sanctions, which only targeted the military and the elites, or that’s what the spirit of them was supposed to be. Those were imposed starting in 2006. However, what we’ve seen, from the end of 2016, is that U.N. sanctions started to target entire sectors of the North Korean economy. It started with the mineral trade. And since then, we’ve slid down this slippery slope, where we’ve ended up at a point where, at the end, all profitable export sectors of the North Korean economy are now blocked from contact with the outside world. And that has been especially a function of the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration, that has convinced other members of the Security Council to impose these very wide-ranging sanctions.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, can you talk about why you commissioned this report? You’re a longtime peace activist. And your response to the Trump administration, who, to your surprise, really changed the direction of U.S. policy when it came to North Korea, but now has switched back?

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, the Korea Peace Now! campaign, which is four organizations — Women Cross DMZ, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, WILPF and a coalition of South Korean peace organizations — formed this campaign, global campaign. We want to see an end to the Korean War. We want to see women’s inclusion in the peace process. We want to see demilitarization, including denuclearization. But we also want to see the lifting of sanctions that harm ordinary people. And so, we wanted to have a clear assessment of what the impact was, and especially on women in North Korea. And so that’s why we felt we needed experts that had humanitarian experience, legal, economists, gender specialists. And so, actually, collectively, these authors have almost over a century of experience, both studying and on the ground in North Korea. So, this is — I mean, this report is really a powerful testament to what is actually happening on the ground in North Korea.

And, you know, to your question about the Trump administration, I mean, you know my position is he’s done the right thing by meeting Kim Jong-un. He’s done the right thing by willing to engage. But I’m not sure in terms of the administration’s policies actually following through on the spirit of the Singapore Declaration. They said they want to transform the relationship. Well, the sanctions are not transforming the relationship. They haven’t declared an end to the Korean War. That would be the clear thing that the North Koreans want. The North Koreans have said, “We are not abandoning our nuclear weapons unless the U.S. drops its hostile policy against us.” And as I’ve said over and over again on the show, it’s not that they’re just looking at Iraq or Libya. They are also looking back at their own history of being destroyed by U.S. bombing campaigns during the Korean War.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role South Korea has played in all of this, the significance of not even still the new president of South Korea, and why the U.S. doesn’t declare an end to the Korean War?

CHRISTINE AHN: I know. It actually makes no sense. I mean, a year ago, the leaders of North and South Korea — Chairman Kim in the North and President Moon Jae-in — they signed something called the Pyongyang Declaration, and they committed to begin a process to turning Korea into a land of peace and a land free from nuclear weapons. And they set forth on these tangible steps to improve relations, which include economic cooperation. They wanted to resume the Kaesong joint industrial complex. And the U.S. basically said, “No, you know, we can’t see progress.” And, you know, the U.S. has put their foot down. And that has really stalled progress between North and South Korea.

So, I think it’s really important for Americans to realize: We want to see peace on the Korean Peninsula. Well, actually, we have a responsibility to help the peace on the Korean Peninsula, because the U.S. is still at war with North Korea. And so, that’s why we, as part of the campaign, have been really pushing for H.Res. 152. Ro Khanna — you had on the show — he’s one of the co-sponsors of this resolution, as is Barbara Lee, Andy Kim, the first Korean-American Democrat, to call for an end to the Korean War, with a peace agreement. We now have 40 co-sponsors — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I think this is an opportunity that reflects the will. There was a new poll that came out last week by YouGov that showed that two out of three of Americans support a peace agreement. This is the only foreign policy issue across partisan lines that had such broad support. This is the moment now. And I really hope that this report can, you know, really speak to the Trump administration.

This is a very easy lift. Lift the humanitarian — the obstacles to humanitarian aid to go into North Korea. Lift the travel ban, that is preventing Korean-American families from engaging. Lift the travel ban on civil society groups, like Women Cross DMZ, to meet with North Korean women. We need more channels of engagement and communication, not less.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But if Trump were to lift the sanctions on North Korea, do you think other states would follow and the United Nations, as well? Because there are several states, organizations that are now imposing sanctions on North Korea.

CHRISTINE AHN: Absolutely. I mean, I think that many of them are following along because the U.S. wields so much power, politically, economically. And I think that they’re very uncomfortable by what they’re seeing.

AMY GOODMAN: Henri Féron, how do the sanctions against North Korea — and explain exactly what they are right now and how they were intensified. Explain what happened with Otto Warmbier, the American who went into a coma there and died soon after being released here. How do these sanctions in North Korea compare with the sanctions against Iran?

HENRI FÉRON: The current sanctions regime against North Korea, as I mentioned before, covers — basically now amounts to an almost complete ban on any trade, investment or financial transaction with North Korea or anything that’s North Korea-related. And that has come to a point where we have seen the U.N. panel of experts, that is supposed to monitor the implementation of these sanctions, report that a long list of humanitarian-sensitive items, that are — that they see as blocked under the current sanctions. This includes medical appliances, such as even something as simple as syringes. This includes agricultural material. This includes irrigation equipment. And what the Security Council will say is that those sanctions are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences. They will point to an exemption mechanism. But the amount of red tape that the system represents ultimately represents a hurdle in itself. And so, what we’ve seen now is this country that has been almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. It’s almost like a state of siege. And it’s taking the North Korean people hostage of a situation that they have little to no control over.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by far. Has the level of trade between China and North Korea been impacted? And some of the supplies, medical equipment and so on, has it been coming from China?

HENRI FÉRON: So, the trade between North Korea and China, China used to represent, people say, 90% of the trade with North Korea. This was not always the case. At some point South Korea had an almost — had a comparable trade with North Korea than China. That ended with South Korean unilateral sanctions. But so, China was, to a certain extent, a lifeline for North Korea. And the position of China has been to accept U.N. sanctions, that are agreed among all members, but not sanctions that are imposed unilaterally by the United States, for instance.

And what we have seen in the trade numbers is that what used to be growing trade with China, and that was part of the economic recovery of North Korea after the famine of the 1990s, has now plunged and is now threatening all the progress that had been done. And if we wait until there is a new economic crisis or a new famine in North Korea, then it will be too late. What we don’t see from the numbers is how much aid China decides to give to North Korea. But right now I’ve — it’s a critical situation. And it’s very concerning that the policy right now is taking the approach of basically punishing the entire people, even though they have no control over the situation.


JOY YOON: Yes, I can give some tangible examples of what that is. As part of our development and humanitarian work in North Korea, we’ve been operating a shoe manufacturing company in the northeast region. There, we employ over 40 employees; most of them are women. In 2017, when the sanctions came out, China also changed their policies, and all joint ventures with China in North Korea had to shut down. We’re talking hundreds of businessmen left North Korea. Currently we still have non-U.S. team members on the ground in North Korea. They say that the prices of items in the marketplace have increased significantly, at least a 22% increase. A 25-kilogram bag of rice used to be 90 renminbi in Chinese money. It’s now about 110 renminbi in Chinese money. So, that will just continue to increase. The prices will continue to rise even higher. And, yes, there’s the potential of us going back into an economic crisis, and hopefully not a famine again.

AMY GOODMAN: Joy Yoon, can you explain — you have lived in North Korea for the last 10 years.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re an American citizen.


AMY GOODMAN: People might be surprised about this, saying, “How are you possibly living there?” Explain the situation for Americans going to North Korea.

JOY YOON: Right. Contrary to what many people think about North Korea, in the ’90s, when the famine did occur, they opened up their doors to humanitarian organizations and to development work. And so, at that point in time, in the late ’90s, early 2000s, United States citizens, other nationalities started to go into North Korea, providing humanitarian aid. Our family started in 2007. And so, through a predecessor, we were able to be introduced into North Korea through medical work. And we started working there and ended up earning our resident cards in the northeast region first. And then our humanitarian work, our medical work, in North Korea was successful to the point that we were invited to go to Pyongyang. So, in 2013, we moved to Pyongyang, and we lived for five years in Pyongyang, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is it like to live there? What was it like for you? And what is it for the North Korean people? What don’t we understand, living here in the United States and other people around the world?

JOY YOON: That’s an excellent question. I think we don’t understand that they are people just like us. They’re real human beings that have families, that have children. They have the same struggles that we have, except to more extreme. Their focus is sometimes how to get day by day. And I think also what we don’t understand is that they love their country, just like we love our country. And we’re waiting for this incredible change. But, in fact, they love their nation. They love their people.

And what we’ve experienced, working there, is, as we were working and building relationship, building trust with North Koreans, incredible things came open to us. We didn’t go to North Korea preparing to work with children with developmental disabilities. There was no treatment in that area in the country. But as we started building trust and building relationships, these doors started to open to us just naturally. And now we’re developing for the first time a training medical facility for children with developmental disabilities, not only in Pyongyang, but we have a contract with the public ministry, the Ministry of Public Health in North Korea, that we can develop pediatric rehabilitation in every single province of North Korea. That’s 10 provinces plus the capital city of Pyongyang.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you leave?

JOY YOON: I had to leave because the U.S. state travel restriction. So, the travel ban was issued on September 1st, 2017. As a result, Time magazine says, approximately 200 U.S. citizens had to leave the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you talk about, Joy — I don’t know whether you’ve worked in other comparable countries. But how does North Korea — how do living conditions in North Korea compare to other countries in the Global South, other developing countries?

JOY YOON: I haven’t honestly been to a lot of developing countries, so I cannot compare it to other nations in similar situations. I can just explain it in this way. When I first went into North Korea, it wasn’t — what really stuck out to me was, it felt like going back in time. So I felt like I was back in the 1950s. So, if you compare South and North Korea, which I have experience in both countries, North Korea is not developed, largely because of the sanctions. They don’t have access to things that would help develop their nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, this news just came out of BBC today as we conduct this interview: North Korea has fired two unidentified projectiles into the sea, the South Korean military says. According to Japan’s Defense Ministry, the objects appear to be ballistic missiles. If confirmed as a missile test, it would be the North’s 12th such launch this year.

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, it’s unfortunate that the military provocations and the missile tests will continue. And at the same time, South Korea is conducting military exercises, as well. We don’t often hear that in the mainstream media. And that doesn’t justify North Korea testing those, but I just think it’s important to hear both sides of the story. And the point is, we have to end this war. Without a formal and permanent end to the Korean War, these military provocations, the militarization, the nuclear weapons, it will continue to go on. And I think why it’s so important for this report to come out at this moment is that, in the meantime, as the two sides — the U.S. and North Korea — work to negotiate a settlement that deals with nuclear weapons and deals with peace, people are suffering. Ordinary people, women are caught in the crossfire of this geopolitical game. And we have to put an end to that.

AMY GOODMAN: You, Christine, as well as Henri, you are both Korean. Henri, I asked you before the show: Are you North Korean or South Korean?

HENRI FÉRON: Well, there’s only one Korea in my heart. My mother grew up in South Korea. But as with a lot of Korean families, we’re actually a divided family. A large part of my family came from the North. And so, when I think about North Koreans, they didn’t choose to be born in this country. And they are subject to really tragic sanctions in the current situation, and we don’t hear their voice, you know? So, what we’re trying to do with this report is also to give a voice to the voiceless, that they really — well, it breaks my heart, really.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how North and South Korea came into being. How did Korea divide?

HENRI FÉRON: What happened was that before the end of World War II, Korea was under — was a Japanese colony. And at the end of the war, all Koreans thought that they would be an independent nation and that they would be left to govern themselves. And that right to self-determination was denied to them. They were split up in two sides, what became North Korea and South Korea, with the reasoning that the Japanese army that was still stationed there needed to be disarmed. And as the Cold War took off, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could not agree on how Korea should be governed. Koreans are able to govern themselves. They’re an older nation than a lot of the Western nations that fought World War II. Yet, because of — they were not allowed to have their own decolonization process, because they were not allowed to choose their own government. They have tragically been separated in a way that now makes it very difficult to put the pieces back together.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Christine Ahn, can you talk about the departure of national security adviser John Bolton, reportedly around the U.S.-North Korea talks and a difference of opinion between Bolton and Trump about how they should be handled?

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, that was news that was celebrated, I’m sure, throughout the entire Korean Peninsula and, I think, you know, peace movements worldwide, given his hard-line stance. And he has been known — he was known to be the person to destroy the Agreed Framework, which was the agreement that the Clinton administration negotiated with North Korea that froze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. And, you know, he took a very hard-line position. We know that he was a large part of why the talks failed in Hanoi. So, since his departure, we have hoped — we had hoped for more progress. Unfortunately, North Korea and the U.S. had talks in Stockholm, Sweden, just earlier this month, and they were not able to come to agreement.

My hope is that this administration takes a more flexible approach, that they can do tangible things right now — declare an end to the Korean War. They can lift some of the sanctions that are impeding humanitarian work, that is blocking inter-Korean economic cooperation. These are things that don’t cost the U.S. anything, but that will drastically improve the lives of North Korean people. And I think that would send a very strong signal to North Korea that the U.S. truly does want to transform its relationship, wants to build trust and end the state of war that we’ve been in for 70 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what is the effect of the impeachment inquiry on the U.S. relationship with North Korea?

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, we have to assume that North Korea is — I mean, I’m sure it’s definitely creating chaos within this administration and their ability to do good, solid negotiations. I mean, I might have — having met Special Representative Biegun, I do feel that at least we have a seasoned diplomat in the State Department. He’s now going to be the deputy secretary of state and still keep the North Korean portfolio. But we have to look at it also from the North Korean side. They are hedging. Are we engaging with an administration that could potentially be impeached? You know, the stakes are too high. And we know that the North Koreans have set an end-of-year deadline. They know that the 2020 elections would not bode well for Trump, if they were to resume long-range missile tests or nuclear weapons tests, which, you know, just creates a situation where we may be back to “fire and fury,” as we were in 2017.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all for being with us. Christine Ahn is international coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now!, which commissioned a report done by the authors Joy Yoon and Henri Féron, “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea.” We’ll link to that report at I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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