Humanitarian Crisis and Nuclear Proliferation in North Korea

IR Online, American University's International Relations Online Program

Nine nations possess the global supply of roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads. The United States and Russia are the largest players, together accounting for more than 90 percent of the supply. North Korea has the smallest count with only 10 warheads, but continues to test its capabilities including conducting three nuclear tests since 2016. It remains the only country to have conducted such tests since 1988.

Even with excluding North Korea’s most recent tests, according to a recent article by American University’s International Relations online program, the country’s missiles have the second longest range in the world. Its recent missile tests, compounded with the country’s operational nuclear capabilities, have further exacerbated its tense relationship with other nations. Though the North Korean government is responsible for its nuclear proliferation, it is the country’s people who are suffering the consequences.

Pyonyang’s ambition to expand its nuclear arsenal comes at a time when other nations are actively seeking to deescalate nuclear proliferation. Thirty-nine nations have entered into the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty which took effect in 2009. In July, 122 members of the United Nations adopted a 10-page treaty calling for a ban on all nuclear weapons. A coalition of NGOs led the effort through a campaign called ICAN — the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. While hailed as a significant moment for the signatory nations, the treaty may be little more than ceremony. None of the nine nations possessing nuclear warheads participated in the treaty. The U.S. specifically cited North Korea’s nuclear ambition as a reason such a treaty is unrealistic. “Is there anyone who thinks North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?” asked Nikki R. Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The global threat posed by North Korea is palpable. Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the U.N. Security Council has passed eight rounds of sanctions against the country. These sanctions are predominately economic measures in response to the development of nuclear weapons. The United States has imposed additional, and more restrictive, sanctions on the country as its nuclear program escalates.

Though the U.N. sanctions against North Korea still allow for humanitarian assistance to enter the country, they have impeded NGO efforts trying to address the humanitarian crisis at hand. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says about 60 percent of the North Korean population is food insecure, and 1.7 million children there are at risk of deadly childhood diseases. In July 2017, the country was hit with its worst drought in almost two decades. This drought has significantly reduced crop production, thereby intensifying food insecurity for the country’s most vulnerable, including women and children.

But some disaster relief agencies are unable to provide help due to new sanctions the U.S. introduced in response to the nuclear testing. International suppliers, mostly in China, worry their work could violate the sanctions. Many North Koreans who rely on export-dependent jobs, such as mining and fishing,  are at risk of losing their livelihoods, as the sanctions limit the extent of the country’s trading partners.

Organizations continue to differentiate between the government and its people. In September, South Korea pledged another 8 million dollars of humanitarian aid while denouncing its neighbor’s nuclear aspirations. Under this pledge, $4.5 million will help provide food aid to North Korean women and children through the U.N. World Food Programme and $3.5 million will be allocated for vaccines and medical treatments through UNICEF.

This may be part of a broader North Korean strategy. A decades-long pattern of conducting tests, followed by false promises of de-escalation, has yielded $20 billion of cash, food, fuel and medicine from the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Humanitarian crises perpetuate the need for humanitarian assistance.  So North Korea continues to receive aid, while growing its nuclear arsenal, and while continuing to threaten the U.S. and its allies. The international community is left with juggling the challenges of halting North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and, simultaneously, the on-going humanitarian crisis. Now that North Korea has formally taken its seat at the table of nuclear nations, it likely won’t be eager to leave.