When pressure prevents life-saving aid

A nursing mother and her baby, about 14-months-old, receive MCC canned meat during meals at a provincial pediatric hospital in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea). Humanitarian assistance has recently been restricted by policies of the U.S. government. *Names and locations withheld for security reasons.

Other stories have long since overshadowed the groundbreaking summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jung Un of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). Sadly, it seems the United States government is dragging its heels in this critical process that could bring reconciliation to the Korean Peninsula and between decades-long adversaries.

Despite the friendly handshake, photo op and effusive tweets, very little has changed in the frozen relations between the U.S. and North Korea. U.S.-imposed travel restrictions hinder most human interaction between the two nations. Financial sanctions and shipping constraints limit the import of almost every kind of item imaginable.

Before the Singapore summit many organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), were still able to carry out humanitarian assistance for people living in North Korea. While it was challenging work considering stringent sanctions, it was still being done.

But that restricted flow of aid has now slowed to a trickle, with the U.S. government sending signals that they intend to cut off humanitarian assistance completely–at a moment when a tuberculosis crisis threatens to debilitate an already fragile and food insecure population. The aid is in jeopardy due to the continued insistence on “maximum pressure,” despite statements from President Trump that would imply otherwise.

Maximum pressure is undermining the small but crucial diplomatic steps that have been underway in recent months. The North Koreans have repeatedly asked the U.S. government for reciprocal security guarantees—in other words, signs that point to meeting the North Koreans half-way.

But many administration officials and members of Congress from both parties insist that the U.S. should cede nothing until the North has completely denuclearized. This stance will surely doom any negotiating process to fail as it is barely getting off the ground. It is an all-take and no-give approach. Negotiation requires both parties acting in good faith using a myriad of tools to build trust.

The U.S. could take many actions that would demonstrate they are acting in good faith. MCC and other humanitarian organizations are urging government officials to consider ending the travel ban for U.S. travelers, allowing humanitarian activities to continue and developing a reasonable strategy of how sanctions could be rolled back when the conditions are right.

At present, the goals of the U.S. government strategy are unclear, but the effect is preventing life-saving humanitarian aid from reaching the people in North Korea who need it most. It is important for people of faith across this country to let our elected officials know that our concern for the sick and hungry crosses all boundary lines, seeking the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7) of neighbors near and far.

Charissa Zehr is the a Legislative Associate for International Affairs in the MCC U.S. Washington Office.