North Korean humanitarian crisis must not be forgotten
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The recent U.S. naval deployment to the Korean peninsula renewed debates over the effectiveness — and appropriateness — of military action in the region. The White House denied that it is seeking regime change, but has yet to offer a clear statement of President Trump’s intentions. 

The most likely short-term goal is sending a signal that Trump will confront continued North Korean nuclear weapons development. Moving forward, however, responses to Kim Jung-un’s regime cannot afford to treat North Korea purely as a security problem. Policy should be guided by the fact that North Korea is, at its core, a humanitarian crisis.


Focusing on security is inevitable given North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the regime’s history of threats to the U.S. and its regional allies. Thus far, America’s previous strategy of (albeit limited) diplomacy has led to little progress.


North Korea’s missile tests have continued largely unabated in spite of past efforts to negotiate. Thus, there are good reasons to worry about the destabilizing effects of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

It’s no coincidence that the news coverage over the weekend was frequently accompanied by the oft-seen footage of the military parading through Pyongyang. The implication is clear: Kim Jong-un, like his father, is preoccupied with projecting force in the region.

But in a country where citizens are allegedly obliged to mourn a leader’s death, that parade footage is an equally powerful statement about the oppressive conditions under which North Koreans live.

Precise data on the daily living conditions facing average North Koreans is difficult to come by. However, the available estimates tell a horrific tale. Roughly 70 percent of the population experiences food insecurity, defined as lacking reliable access to regular, nutritious food. Further, approximately 7 million people live without consistent access to drinking water.

At the same time, pregnant women lack sufficient prenatal care, resulting in high levels of anemia and infant underdevelopment. Malnourishment among children is widespread to the degree that it affects almost 30 percent of children under the age of five.

Much of this can be attributed to an economy largely closed to global markets and that lags significantly behind the region in productive capacity. North Korea’s GDP per capita places it among the poorest countries in the world. Most of the country’s resources are state-owned, and there has been little industrialization, especially compared to it’s southern neighbor. 

The public health and economic problems are exacerbated by a political system in which there is consistent rule of law. Forced labor, prison camps and disappearances are all commonplace. It’s not a coincidence that the country ranks near the bottom of the World Bank’s rule of law scale.

None of these numbers come as any surprise. Yet, the humanitarian side of this confrontation is rarely a focal point of discussion. That’s a certain mistake. The U.S. should have the humanitarian consequences of any action — military or diplomatic — at the forefront of its political calculations.

Of course, the human costs of Kim Jong-un’s continued reign are precisely the reason some might seek regime change, but adopting an overly-aggressive posture offers no guarantees of a better outcome. One should naturally be careful in drawing historical analogies, but improved living conditions for average citizens and increased political freedoms were also part of the stated logic behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While those countries exhibit some traits not shared by North Korea, there’s a general lesson to keep in mind. Namely, that intervention needs to be accompanied by a concrete plan for addressing needs and welfare of a suffering population. 

Therefore, even if Kim Jong-un is focused myopically on military force, the U.S. should not be. There is little doubt that the U.S. has the absolute strength to win a war. But that isn’t a reason to do it. Direct confrontation of U.S. forces against a conscripted army — forced into service — would be a material and a moral disaster.

Trump is quickly learning that military action — even in limited forms — creates new political difficulties. His strikes on Syria produced few clear short-term benefits and only agitated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And Syria, which is facing a much more public humanitarian crisis of its own, further illustrates the challenges coping with potential regime change in a country with so much suffering. 

The answer has to be a diplomatic one. Even though previous attempts has been largely ineffective, efforts could be redoubled. Active engagement should be prioritized over threats or, as has happened in the past, simply ignoring the situation. This is best way to target the regime itself and to avoid punishing the citizens who are figuratively – and literally – trapped.


Jeffrey Kucik is an assistant professor in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Emory University and was previously a research fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.