A Suggested Humanitarian and Human Rights Agenda for North Korea

Joel Charny and
Joel Charny Vice President of Humanitarian Policy and Practice - InterAction
Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

July 20, 2004


  • Because humanitarian aid “should know no politics,” donors should de-link extension of food aid and medicines from political and strategic objectives but make it conditional on progress toward international humanitarian standards. 
  • The standards should include: unimpeded access to all parts of North Korea and to all vulnerable populations irrespective of political categorization; and monitoring by independent relief organizations to verify that the aid is reaching those for whom it is intended and distributed in accordance with humanitarian principles.
  • Progress indicators would be: access to additional counties; ability to do unannounced monitoring visits; ability to hire independent interpreters or have Korean speakers on staff; provision of verifiable distribution plans and lists.
  • Aid to improve agriculture (eg, machinery, fertilizer, technical assistance) should be considered after progress on more equitable distribution of food.


  • To mitigate famine, international humanitarian organizations and donors should advocate for people to be allowed to forage for food and seek employment within the country without being subject to arrest or harassment.
  • International aid agencies should seek information on persons internally displaced in the country with a view to providing international assistance to them.
  • The international community should recognize that the border between North Korea and China is a lifeline for North Koreans during times of severe food shortages and insist that this border remain open.
  • Because North Koreans are under constant threat of arrest and deportation in China, and when returned to North Korea may be placed in labor training centers and otherwise punished, international advocacy should focus on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) being given unimpeded access to this population.
  • UNHCR should then determine who qualifies as a refugee amongst this population and accord a special “humanitarian status” to those who do not qualify in order to protect them from arbitrary arrest and deportation.
  • In cooperation with UNHCR, the United States should seek to establish an orderly process for North Korean refugees to be resettled.


  • A human rights and humanitarian dialogue should be initiated with North Korea, both multilaterally and bilaterally, with benchmarks of progress identified for these dialogues.
  • At the multilateral level, in accordance with the resolutions of the UN Commission on Human Rights, a dialogue should be initiated between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the government of North Korea, and OHCHR should offer technical assistance programs on human rights.
  • At the same time, human rights and humanitarian organizations should mobilize support for the monitoring of human rights conditions in North Korea, inclusive of the right to food, by the UN Commission on Human Rights and by UN human rights treaty bodies.
  • Governments and NGOs should explore bringing North Korea into the human dimension framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and developing a Helsinki process for North and South Korea.
  • Human rights and humanitarian issues should be introduced, at an appropriate point, into the negotiations with North Korea on security issues, guided by the precedent of the Helsinki Final Act in Europe.