Sanctions worsen risk of COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea

Written by Blake Hershberger

COVID-19 has spread across the world. With China and South Korea having experienced large numbers of cases, the threat of an outbreak is looming over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The U.S. should lift sanctions against the DPRK that prevent the country from importing medical and testing equipment and help the country respond to an outbreak that would result in the loss of many lives. Decades of sanctions on the DPRK have prevented much-needed medical resources from entering the country. Without resources such as ventilators, protective gear or sanitizers, the healthcare system is vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak.

In addition to unilateral sanctions on the DPRK such as those imposed by the U.S., the United Nations Security Council has also passed numerous sanctions against the country. While food and medicine are exempt from these sanctions, humanitarian organizations cannot send any items containing metal components, which includes medical devices and supplies such as needles, sterilizers and x-ray machines without getting a special exemption. This process takes time and resources to work through without a guaranteed result.

In response to the global COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S. State Department said they would expedite the approval of aid to the DPRK for U.S. and international NGOs. The UN has also sped up the approval process for exemptions and several international NGOs have already received permission to respond to COVID-19 with diagnostic support and personal protective equipment.

However, many do not believe these actions go far enough. Access to healthcare is a fundamental human right. Sending vital humanitarian aid should not be dependent on government permission in the first place. Speeding up the approval process is helpful, but it might be too little, too late as countries’ healthcare capabilities will still reflect past limitations on medical supplies.

Sweeping sanctions have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable in the DPRK. As Christians we need to work towards meeting the basic needs of our neighbors around the world.  During the current global pandemic, it’s even more important to retract these sanctions that are crippling healthcare systems in vulnerable countries.