Sanctions vs. Saving Lives in North Korea: Two Rays of Hope

Child under care at an MCC-supported pediatric hospital in North Korea, with her mother (photo taken with parent’s permission)

Via my travels into North Korea in recent years guiding Mennonite Central Committee’s longstanding humanitarian work there, I learned firsthand how US and United Nations sanctions are making what was already difficult work almost impossible to carry forward. This faces not only MCC but agencies like Christian Friends of Korea (whose problems included MCC-provided nail clippers blocked), and Joy and Stephen Yoon of the Ignis Community who were forced to depart Pyongyang and slow down their remarkable work with disabled children in North Korea (see Joy’s moving story about the child named Blessing who unfortunately did not receive care soon enough).

But for those committed to serving vulnerable people in North Korea regardless of politics, in my new United Nations role in New York with MCC I’ve become aware of two pieces of good news.

The first good news is a recent rising tide of credible voices gaining wide media attention regarding the harmful effects of US and UN sanctions on vulnerable people in North Korea. This includes a Harvard medical doctor writing in USA Today, pieces in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the American Conservative, and a PBS Newshour piece in which I am interviewed. While a key U.N. humanitarian expert has acknowledged what he termed the “unintended consequences” of sanctions, what we are saying is that the verdict is now “in”: what may have once been unintended is now known, clearly harmful, and in need of reversal.

The second piece of good news: A new bipartisan bill entitled “Saving Lives in North Korea Act” will soon be introduced into the U.S. Congress. Initiated by Representative Andy Levin from Michigan, the purpose of this bill is to help improve humanitarian access for U.S. NGO workers and expedite aid shipments to the DPRK.

We in MCC are grateful that we received a UN exemption in March to continue our support caring for children in three pediatric hospitals which we have visited multiple times. And we are grateful for the US government officials who helped in that process. But here’s the problem: Why did MCC have to ask for permission via such a burdensome process to provide sick children such simple and clearly-needed items as water filters, nail clippers, and diaper safety pins?

MCC will be working with others to seek support for the upcoming “Saving Lives in North Korea Act.” I will be inviting you and your churches and organizations to be part of this significant movement towards protecting humanitarian work and saving lives in North Korea.

Also see:

My August 2019 article in Sojourners magazine about why US humanitarian work in North Korea matters for addressing mutual hostilities

Timeline of MCC’s 25-year work in North Korea

Stories about MCC’s work in North Korea




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