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Korean sanctions are a humanitarian disaster

June 12, 2018

[Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford, a former co-president of IPPNW and Honorary Board Member of Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, gave the following talk in Seoul in May 2018, as part of the event Women Cross the DMZ.]

by Mary-Wynne Ashford 

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”. Charles Dickens wrote about Paris and London in the French Revolution, but his words echo today for North and South Korea. It is the best of times because there is finally hope for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and hope for an end to sixty-five years of war.

It is the worst of times because the threat of nuclear war between the US and North Korea is real and terrifying. War has separated North and South Korea, divided families and kept North Koreans under embargoes for 65 years. The suffering of North Koreans under the current sanctions is a humanitarian disaster. Sanctions are described by their supporters as diplomatic tools to be used instead of military strikes. Sanctions are not tools of diplomacy. They are tools of war – cruel, barbaric tools of war. They are tools of war that disproportionately strike women, children, the sick, and the elderly – the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

When I was in North Korea in 1999 and again in 2000, I led a delegation of leaders of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, meeting with North Korean doctors to discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.

Doctors know that in case of nuclear war, medicine has nothing meaningful to offer.

Because the DPRK was still recovering from floods and famine, we took with us humanitarian aid in the form of $50,000 USD of an antibiotic called Ciprofloxacin, donated by an American Pharmaceutical company.

We visited the hospital in Pyongyang and saw the consequences of the severe shortage of electricity on hospital care. Modern Western medicine requires electricity for almost every procedure from the pumps for IV solutions to the CT scanners, X-Ray and ultrasound machines and diagnostic laboratory tests. Surgery requires electricity for lights, anaesthetic machines, monitors, laser equipment, laparoscopes and so on.

We were taken by van to the paediatric hospital in Kaesong City. We were literally the only vehicle on a six lane divided highway. In Pyonyang, most of the vehicles were for the humanitarian agencies like UNICEF, and the Red Cross. At night the city was in total darkness.

Because the doctors could no longer practice Western Medicine, they were using Traditional Korean Medicine in order to offer whatever they could to their patients.  They were using the hospital corridor to dry ginseng in the absence of the medicines previously available. The diagnostic lab was not in operation because of the lack of reagents. Diabetes and other chronic diseases could not be treated.

Today the situation is much worse. Rubber gloves, sterile operating room gowns, scalpel blades, suture materials, spare parts and medications are not available because of the sanctions. Disposable items are saved and re-used with risk to patients. Scalpel blades are rusty, dull and dangerous. Current medical journals and texts are not available. How will children be immunized against the common childhood diseases like measles, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio? Pneumonia and measles become deadly diseases in malnourished children.

The lack of oil affects food production because pumps cannot be used in the rice paddies, produce cannot be transported by trucks into the city, fertilizers are not available, and food cannot be processed. People must be on foot instead of in buses. The resulting food shortages affect women and children disproportionately because pregnant women require extra prenatal nutrition to sustain the growth and development of the fetus, and, after delivery, sufficient calories to be able to nurse and care for the baby.

Sanctions were not supposed to have severe effects on the civilian population. Paragraph 26 of the recent Resolution 2375, passed in September 2017, explicitly states that UN sanctions against the DPRK:

“… are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK or to affect negatively or restrict those activities, including economic activities and cooperation, food aid and humanitarian assistance, that are not prohibited (……) and the work of international and non-governmental organizations carrying out assistance and relief activities in the DPRK for the benefit of the civilian population of the DPRK.”

This statement disregards the lessons of history. The effects of sanctions are well known because they were used against Iraq, where they caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

In North Korea in winter, the lack of electricity makes cooking and heating very difficult. In rural areas, wood is cut for heating and cooking, resulting in deforestation in mountainous areas at risk of floods. Infrastructure repairs require oil for equipment and rebuilding after flood damage. When humanitarian aid organizations order medical equipment, blankets and supplies, distributors are reluctant to fill the orders lest the shipments be turned back. Sometimes they substitute lower quality items for the materials ordered.

UNICEF reports that under the current sanctions on the DPRK, some 60,000 children will die. Children who survive will be malnourished and suffer stunting. Stunting causes permanent consequences, including brain damage. The 2017 UNICEF report states that 28 per cent of all children aged five and under already suffer from moderate to severe stunting.

The international community must demand an end to this humanitarian crisis. The UN agreement, “Responsibility to Protect” states that when a country is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens, the responsibility to protect falls on the international community. We must take this responsibility seriously and ensure that humanitarian aid and workers are able to get into North Korea urgently, and that international banking and money transfer systems be restored. North Koreans must be allowed to work abroad and transfer their earnings to their families.

Ending sanctions must not wait for the conclusion of negotiations and plans for a Peace Treaty and reunification. Humanitarian work and confidence building measures, exchange visits for training and education, and family reunification can begin as part of the peacebuilding process.

Women must be involved in all stages of resolution of this conflict and the peacebuilding process. Adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security is essential to ensure that the transition toward peace is inclusive and stable. The global Study reviewing fifteen years of 1325 UNSCR implementation provides comprehensive evidence that women’s equal and meaningful participation in peace and security efforts is vital to sustainable peace.

The role of women in reducing armed conflict is well known today and the importance of including women’s rights in post conflict peacebuilding is very clear. The status of women in a society affects the likelihood that a state will choose military options in foreign policy.

The longer women have had the vote, the less likely the state will go to war. [1]

Here are a series of conditions that each lead to a fivefold decrease in the likelihood of the use of military violence.

  • increasing the number of years of women having the vote
  • increasing the number of women in parliament by 5%
  • decreasing the fertility rate by one-third (fertility encompasses level of education, economic opportunities, political rights, and overall social status)
  • increasing the proportion of women in the labor force by 5%

When men and women work together on peacebuilding, the men have been observed to focus on more on pragmatic details, and the women on relationship building. Both genders are necessary, and the outcome is stronger when both perspectives are brought into the discussions.

Canada’s Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland stated: “The path to peace needs empowered women. Where women are included in peace processes, peace is more enduring; where women are included in the economy, economic growth is consistently higher; and where women are included in governance, states are more inclusive and more stable.”

As the peace process evolves we know there will be obstacles and resistance during the transitional period. This is a time when North Korea must be brought into the world community again and South Korea must be supported in this re-integration. Education and employment, economic development, and even cultural differences may prove difficult, but commitment to build trust and cooperation can lead to positive outcomes and stability. This is the time for professional and cultural exchanges, tourism, shared economic ventures and transition to sustainable energy. This is the time for women to step forward to lead and inspire the world.

[1] Caprioli, Mary, 2000. ‘Gendered Conflict’, Journal of Peace Research 37(1):51-68

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