It is a pleasure for me to be here today with this distinguished panel to discuss humanitarian assistance programs in North Korea. I want to thank the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS for hosting today’s event.
This is an important issue that deserves careful attention. The United States remains deeply concerned about the well-being of the North Korean people. We seek to alleviate the humanitarian problems in North Korea and also to end the egregious human rights violations occurring in the country.
The United States Cares
The American people have repeatedly demonstrated that we are compassionate and that we care about the well-being of others. In the past the United States has been at the forefront of international humanitarian efforts aid to North Korea.
Between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in aid, both in the form of food and heavy fuel oil, making us one of the leading contributors of assistance to the DPRK. But both the United States and UN agencies have struggled with North Korean authorities over the lack of transparency and freedom to monitor the distribution of food and other humanitarian assistance.
In the fall of 2008, the U.S. resumed a food assistance program for the North Korean People, working with American NGOs and the UN’s World Food Programme. There were difficulties in monitoring aid distribution, and in early 2009, North Korea unilaterally terminated our assistance program. Just two months later, North Korea conducted its second nuclear weapons test.
Difficulties Engaging the DPRK
Because of the difficulty of satisfying our own requirements for monitoring aid to North Korea, as well as budgetary constraints and intense demand for American humanitarian aid in many other parts of the world – Syria, Sudan, Ebola-afflicted areas of Africa among others – it is very difficult for us to provide aid to the DPRK.
North Korea is an authoritarian government ruled by an isolated elite, with a state-controlled media and no freedom of speech or press, no freedom of religion, no transparency in governance, and no rule of law or mechanism for airing grievances. The country remains one of the most restrictive governments on earth. This makes it very difficult for the U.S. government to engage directly with North Korea, even when dealing with the issue of humanitarian aid.
The landmark 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s human rights noted the deplorable use of food by the North Korean government as a means of controlling its population. According to the Commission, North Korea’s leaders are guilty of “knowingly causing prolonged starvation” and are responsible for the death by starvation of hundreds of thousands of its own people.
Whenever we undertake an assistance program, regardless of the country in which we operate, by law we are required to monitor aid distribution to ensure that assistance reaches the most vulnerable populations. This is the key element that has made it difficult to continue our assistance to North Korea.
The DPRK has not requested humanitarian aid from the United States since 2011, and we do not have any plans to provide such assistance.
The U.S. Government Supports NGO Efforts
But the need for food, medical, technical, and educational aid is still urgent in North Korea. This is why people and NGOs like the ones that are here today are so important. They are able to engage with North Korea under different circumstances. Whereas North Korea has set up road blocks to government-to-government engagement, it has demonstrated a willingness to work directly with NGOs.
NGOs are able to do things the United States cannot do. This is why we admire and encourage their efforts to provide much needed aid to the people of North Korea. To the extent that we can be helpful, we seek to support NGO efforts.
The United States has long made clear to North Korea that we are open to improved relations if it is willing to take concrete actions to live up to its international obligations and commitments.
We remain gravely concerned about the ongoing systematic and widespread human rights violations in the DPRK and about the well-being of the North Korean people, who bear the brunt of their government’s decision to perpetuate its self-impoverishing policies.
These policies deny the people of the North human and civil rights and the quality of life which they could and should have. Addressing these human rights abuses in North Korea remains an essential component of U.S. policy.
We believe direct people-to-people contact, which occurs through the provision of humanitarian aid, such as that provided by private organizations, can have a positive long term impact on advancing change in the country. As such, we support efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea. And we call on North Korea to honor its international obligations and agreements and to allow the international humanitarian assistance groups and independent monitors unfettered access to all areas of the country to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches its intended recipients.
I want to thank you for you for your efforts with North Korea, and we support your cause.
Ultimately, we will judge North Korea, not by its words, but by its actions—the concrete steps it takes to address the core concerns of the international community, from its nuclear program, to its human rights violations, and its effort for the well-being of the North Korean people.