I am one of the few Americans who has lived for an extensive period in North Korea – the most isolated country on Earth.
For over eleven years, my husband and I have been working in North Korea through our nonprofit, Ignis Community. We help to provide medical treatment for children with developmental disabilities – a demographic with few resources in North Korea.
Take, for example, Blessing, the daughter of an official we met in the northeast region of North Korea. Like most disabled children in North Korea, Blessing was kept at home, hidden. Even the family’s closest friends and co-workers did not know that Blessing existed. At the age of four, she could not walk, stand, or even sit up. Her grandmother kept her alive by first chewing her food for her and then spooning it into her mouth and helping her swallow.
It took Blessing and her family several days to travel from their home province to the capital city of Pyongyang, to receive treatment at our Spine Rehabilitation Center (PYSRC). As the first training hospital for pediatric rehabilitation in North Korea, the center provides medical and therapeutic services for children with cerebral palsy, autism, and other developmental disabilities. Here, Blessing was able to learn how to voluntarily operate her mouth muscles, roll over, and even sit up for the first time.
Prior to the PYSRC, no official treatment existed for children like Blessing. Now, the North Korean Ministry of Public Health is working to establish pediatric rehabilitation centers in all ten of the country’s provincial hospitals. Doctors are being trained in treatment methodologies at the Pyongyang Medical School Hospital.
However, that success is at risk because of an increase in sanctions imposed on North Korea, and children like Blessing are having a harder time getting access to the treatment that they so desperately need. In December of 2017, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2397, which bans the import of metal and, as a result, restricts medical supplies such as needles, rehabilitation equipment, and lab diagnostics from entering the country. Although it is possible to apply for an exemption for humanitarian-related items, the process can be subject to burdensome delays.
We finally obtained all necessary licenses for the development of the medical center in September — nearly four years after we began the process.
The United Nations and the United States government have both stated that they have no intention of hurting the common people of North Korea or hindering humanitarian assistance to the neediest. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. The current political climate challenges even large NGOs to reconsider their involvement in North Korea. It takes years to request all the necessary governmental permits and licenses to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable in North Korea. Even American humanitarian workers have occasionally been denied Special Validation Passports from the US State Department to enter North Korea
In our case, Ignis Community began applying for the appropriate licenses in 2015. First, our organization was required to obtain an Office of Foreign Assets Control license from the US Treasury Department in order to channel funds and supplies to complete the development and construction of the treatment center.
Next, we needed to obtain a Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security license from the Department of Commerce to allow medical and rehabilitation equipment to be shipped to Pyongyang. Once this license was obtained, more sanctions were implemented. Ignis Community then had to apply for an exemption from the UN Sanctions Committee for any shipment containing metal to prevent its stoppage and quarantine by Chinese customs along the Sino-North Korea border.
We finally obtained all necessary licenses for the development of the medical center in September — nearly four years after we began the process. Although we recently obtained the licenses to open the center, we have been providing care through the facilities at the Pyongyang Medical School Hospital, where the PYSRC is located.
Our case is not unique — providing humanitarian aid to North Korea often requires years of applying for permits and licenses, not only from the United States but also from the United Nations. Legal expertise is crucial to be able to navigate the technical requirements to operate in North Korea, decreasing the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In the meantime, the common people of North Korea who need help the most are the ones who are suffering, not the government. I contributed to a new report commissioned by the global campaign Korea Peace Now, “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea,” which details some of these impacts.
Americans pride ourselves on our humanitarian efforts and denounce North Korea for their human rights violations. Ironically, though, it is US policies and UN sanctions that are impeding the efforts of humanitarian organizations to deliver much-needed aid.
Humanitarian engagement with any country, regardless of politics, should be fueled by a desire to save lives. The value of human life should always supersede the state of diplomatic relations with any country. Humanitarian assistance should not be subject to political whims and should be separated from other sanctions imposed on North Korea. Today, we are turning our backs on innocent children just at the moment we have a chance to bring them the help they need. Unfortunately for Blessing, this assistance proved to be too late, and her life ended abruptly. Let’s not let another child slip away – we must seize the opportunity to save thousands of other children just like her.
Joy Yoon is the Co-Founder & International Director of IGNIS Community and Director of Educational Therapy at PYSRC in North Korea.