Letter to UN Security Council Regarding Sanctions on North Korea

Members of the United Nations Security Council

December 11, 2019

Dear Ambassadors,

We are writing to you as members of the international women-led campaign Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War.  

As you gather today to discuss the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula, we urge you to take a holistic approach considering the human costs of sanctions-based responses. The North Korean civilian population is caught in the crossfire of a geopolitical dispute they have little to no control over, perpetuated by the lack of resolution to the Korean War and made more acute by the imposition of sanctions so comprehensive they threaten their very existence. As it is part of the fundamental principles of the United Nations to settle disputes peacefully and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, we urge you to call for an end to the Korean War and to review the conformity of nonproliferation sanctions to international human rights and humanitarian law.

Recently, our campaign commissioned a panel of independent experts to produce a report, “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea,” which highlighted the negative consequences of sanctions on the lives of the North Korean people. According to the report, the sanctions regime against North Korea has since 2016 grown from a “smart sanctions” model essentially targeting the military and the elite to an almost total embargo on North Korea-related trade, investments, and financial transactions. Drawing evidence from UN and nongovernmental organizations on the ground as well as other relevant datasets, the report found that sanctions are having humanitarian, developmental and gendered impacts and that existing sanctions exemption mechanisms are insufficient to prevent adverse consequences. It raised concerns that the sanctions in their current form may overstep what is permissible under international humanitarian and human rights law, highlighting the rights to life, food, health, an adequate standard of living, and development, as well as women’s rights.

While the Security Council has repeatedly stated that its sanctions are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences, in their current form, sanctions are interfering with the ability of both international aid organizations and of the North Korean government to address the urgent and long-standing humanitarian needs of the population. According to the UN Panel of Experts, a wide range of humanitarian-sensitive items are banned from entering the country, including agricultural material and medical equipment, and generally any items containing metal, such as scalpels or nails.

Sanctions are also impeding the economic development of the DPRK, reversing the country’s growing trade and engagement with the world. This undermines progress that North Korea made in overcoming the economic crisis and famine of the 1990s, particularly market activity led by grassroots women, a key engine of social change. Sanctions undermine women’s economic security and their livelihoods, perhaps most clearly with UNSC resolution 2375’s ban on textile exports, an industry in which 82 percent of workers are female. Increasing gender inequality is counterproductive to the stated aims of those advocating sanctions. Furthering a gender divide and marginalising women from any form of economic power and, hence, influence (even if limited) serves only to institutionalise the disparities that empirical research in various conflicts has shown is inimical to peace building.

As the crushing North Korean winter sets in and as expatriate North Korean workers are forced to give up their jobs by the end of the year and return to the DPRK, we urge you to urgently address the unfolding human tragedy by (1) opening the space for dialogue on the adverse consequences of sanctions and the question of their conformity to international human rights and humanitarian law, (2) establishing a process to assess the human impact of sanctions and take expedient action to mitigate and ultimately eliminate undue harm; and (3) calling on the relevant parties to the unresolved Korean War to formally end it by replacing the 1953 Armistice with a peace agreement.

We look forward to your response and constructive engagement.


Korean Women’s Movement for Peace
Nobel Women’s Initiative
Women Cross DMZ
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)