The Power of One: Personal Commentary from Two North Korea Specialists

January 6, 2023

The Power of One

(The following is personal commentary from two North Korea specialists and does not reflect the perspective of the National Committee on North Korea).

People are dying in North Korea. The casualties are not a consequence of war or US and UN sanctions. The death sentence results from actions by the North Korean government which has kept the border closed since early 2020, disrupting supply chains that had facilitated the importation of medicine, food, and a range of other humanitarian assistance. The elderly, pregnant and lactating mothers, and children living outside of Pyongyang are easy targets. Prior to the pandemic, the UN estimated that over 40% of the population was malnourished.

The implementation of North Korea’s border closure since Covid-19 was first declared in China has gone beyond the tenets of sound science. Hardliners within the North Korean leadership engineered a quarantine regime for desired outcomes, including the elimination of expatriates and foreign eyes in the country. Officials of the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and foreign embassies departed with no allowance by the North Korean government for the arrival of replacement personnel.

While North Korea receives Covid and other humanitarian assistance from China, and the smuggling of goods (both ways) is on the increase, countless North Korean citizens, many of whom were already suffering from malnourishment are denied access to medicine for tuberculosis (TB), multidrug resistant tuberculosis, malaria and other maladies. TB patients, among other are dying and this disease which knows no borders is spreading throughout the population.

Prior to the pandemic, and despite the intended impact of sanctions, Kim Jong Un’s emphasis on growing the economy and moving away from a “military-first” approach was gaining traction. However, the rigid quarantine structure disrupting market mechanisms and eliminating access to needed basic provisions coupled with weather disasters and the influx of COVID have taken a toll on the North Korean population.

It's impossible to accurately project the level of human misery and the death count. International experts on humanitarian assistance are fretting over the possible range of casualties.

Looking back in time, in 1948 the United States and the United Kingdom responded to the Soviet blockade preventing the flow of food, coal, and other supplies into Berlin by implementing a massive airlift dropping supplies to the general population.[1]

Neither President Joe Biden nor Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will similarly respond to assist the neediest non-elites of North Korea.

However, we now live in a world where influence has expanded from the traditional nation-state to the individual – the power of one. Rapidly changing technology, the infinity of the internet coupled with the impact of social media, and an enormity of personal wealth have created a never-before imagined synergy where one person may influence the lives of millions - for better or worse.

Will the continued closure of North Korea’s border spur international wealthy entrepreneurs driven by a humanitarian spirit into action? Will the world be witness to the drone delivery of food and medicine to those areas outside of Pyongyang engineered by one or more individuals elsewhere on the globe?

The longer that the North Korean border remains closed, the greater will be the impulse for action undertaken by the power of one.


[1] Inside DOD, “The Berlin Airlift, What it Was, Its Importance in the Cold War”, Katie Lange, June 25, 2018