Although Iran’s attempt to develop a nuclear weapon is garnering most of the world’s attention, the U.S. should not lose sight of the fact that North Korea already successfully detonated two nuclear devices on October 9, 2006, and May 25, 2009. Indeed, the U.S. believes North Korea has enough plutonium for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons and has been striving to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering these weapons by testing its long-range Taepodong-2 missiles twice in recent years.
North Korea’s actions have violated numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions. In response to the 2006 missile and nuclear tests, the Security Council passed resolutions 1695 and 1718, which directed that North Korea “suspend all [ballistic missile] activities [and] abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” The Security Council unanimously condemned the 2009 nuclear test in resolution 1874 and strengthened existing sanctions to ban all weapons exports and imposed travel restrictions and froze the assets of government officials and businesses.
To its credit, the Obama Administration has taken a firm line with North Korea. The White House has refused to indulge Pyongyang’s trademark strategy: initiating provocative actions in order to secure concessions. The Administration has also rejected North Korea’s demand that the U.S. enter into bilateral negotiations. Considering North Korea’s clear opposition to disarming and reports that North Korea is evading U.N. sanctions, America’s tough stance is appropriate.
Yet given its otherwise firm stance toward Pyongyang, it is curious that the Obama Administration, as well as Congress, is not more wary of supporting development and humanitarian assistance to North Korea. For example, despite the poor prospects for fruitful negotiations and Pyongyang’s history of misusing aid, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) and other U.N. entities continue to provide assistance to that country. The U.S. should use its influence to curtail this assistance, which can be diverted and misused by the North Korean government, and ensure that it is subject to rigorous monitoring and verification standards.
The U.N. and North Korea
Despite condemning North Korea’s violation of multiple Security Council resolutions, several U.N. organizations remain involved in North Korea, including the World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, and UNDP. The linkage between humanitarian or development efforts and security concerns need not be explicit. However, the tight control the North Korean government imposes on its citizens and over the in-country activities of non-governmental organizations and international organizations providing humanitarian and development assistance should raise concerns about the benefit of such assistance to the North Korean people.
Humanitarian Assistance. Many argue that the U.S. should continue to support the U.N.’s humanitarian work in North Korea regardless of Pyongyang’s actions. For instance, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe recently stated, “These are human beings that need the food. It’s not the political system. This shouldn’t be argued in a political way.”
There is little doubt about the suffering of the North Korean people. However, it is the repressive policies of the North Korean government that have most directly contributed to the country’s food shortage by constraining internal and external trade and inhibiting private production. Moreover, although the U.N. is currently providing “nutritional supplements to as many as 1.3 million of North Korea’s 24 million people,” the overall U.N. effort was dramatically scaled back last year after North Korea informed WFP and the U.S. to reduce and end, respectively, provision of food assistance and ordered five non-governmental organizations involved in distributing the food aid to leave the country. Considering the situation, it is hard to separate the suffering of the North Korean people from the political decisions of the government.
An additional concern is tracking and accounting for international food assistance. Pascoe has argued that “our people believe they have a very clear idea of who’s using the food, where it’s going, and it’s really for the good of the people who need it most.” But a 2008 South Korea news story reported that “South Korean military authorities have known since 2003 … that North Korea has transported rice supplied by the South for humanitarian purposes to frontline units of the North Korean Army.” The ability to track such assistance needs to be enhanced if donors are to be confident that humanitarian assistance benefits the people of North Korea—not the government.
Although politically difficult, it is eminently reasonable for the U.S. and other nations to deny additional food and humanitarian assistance to North Korea until the government agrees to rigorous, transparent monitoring standards and delivery verification. Such standards should, at a minimum:
- Allow donors to use international staff and Korean speakers throughout their North Korean operations;
- Grant complete and free access to projects, distribution centers and aid recipients to ensure that aid is not being diverted by the North Korean government; and
- Not impede non-governmental organizations helping to deliver aid and assess need.
UNDP. It is even more reasonable for the U.S. to demand that the UNDP executive board rescind its January 2009 decision to renew UNDP activities in North Korea. Information provided by whistleblowers to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations led the mission to investigate the UNDP program in North Korea. The information gleaned from these inquiries and subsequent media attention led the UNDP executive board to suspend its activities in North Korea in March 2007.
Subsequent reports by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate and an independent audit commissioned by UNDP confirmed that deficiencies in UNDP rules, procedures, and management permitted North Korea to dictate the composition of UNDP staff, access hard currency, and avoid standard monitoring procedures for projects and financial transactions.
After securing assurances from UNDP on a number of measures (ranging from ineffectual to potential improvements) to prevent further mismanagement, the UNDP executive board voted in January 2009 to resume activities in North Korea. UNDP returned to North Korea in September 2009, and in December 2009, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark announced that UNDP will start “with a small program—around $2.5 million a year and a very small number of employees.” UNDP had three foreign staff and 13 North Korean staff in place as of December 2009, and the office will be fully operational in February 2010.
This decision should raise alarm bells among those concerned with pressuring Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. As confirmed in both the Senate and independent UNDP audits, the North Korean government was able to circumvent the U.N.’s anti-proliferation sanctions under the previous UNDP program and secure “dual-use” technology (including computers, software, satellite-receiving equipment, and spectrometers) that could be used for its nuclear and military programs. The nature of the North Korean regime makes abuse a near certainty.
Any U.S. Administration interested in ending North Korea’s nuclear program should demand a freeze on UNDP activities as long as North Korea remains in violation of Security Council resolutions. This is doubly the case since the seven UNDP projects, unlike food aid, would not focus on relieving the suffering of those most affected by the depredations of the North Korean government: the people of North Korea.
Bringing Pressure to Bear
A recalcitrant and unrepentant North Korean regime should not be rewarded. Although under the right circumstances humanitarian assistance could alleviate the suffering in North Korea, the U.S. and other countries are justified in demanding assurances that their charity is not being misused. Suspending UNDP programs in North Korea should be even less controversial since these programs are not focused on immediate relief.
The U.S. is a major contributor to and sits on the executive boards of UNDP, WFP, and UNICEF. The Obama Administration, bolstered by financial incentives from Congress, should demand that these organizations curtail or suspend their North Korea programs until rigorous, transparent monitoring standards and delivery verification are implemented and, in the case of UNDP, suspend all activities until Pyongyang complies with Security Council resolutions and ends its nuclear program.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).