TOKYO — The lives of more than 1,500 North Korean tuberculosis patients are at risk, an American-run humanitarian foundation said Wednesday, because tough new sanctions are stopping medicine from getting to sick people.
After the United Nations imposed multilateral sanctions this month as punishment for North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launch, South Korea this week imposed direct sanctions of its own. But unlike the unilateral U.S. sanctions recently passed by Congress, the South Korean measures do not make a general exception for humanitarian aid.
That has hamstrung the Eugene Bell Foundation, which treats people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis inside North Korea but cannot get the export licenses it needs to ship medicine from the South to its treatment facilities in the North.
“Unless something is done quickly, our patients will fail treatment and die,” said Stephen W. Linton, chairman of the foundation. “Short of all-out war, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for the Korean people.”
Linton, an American, runs the foundation from South Korea. About 85 percent of the foundation’s donors are South Korean — the rest are mostly Korean Americans — and the medicines are sourced from South Korea.
The Eugene Bell Foundation treated more than 250,000 tuberculosis patients over a decade before focusing in 2007 on diagnosing and treating multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, a particularly pernicious form of infection that does not respond to standard TB medication. While 95 percent of people with regular TB are cured, the international cure rate for multi-drug-resistant TB averages only 45 percent, and the medicine costs more than 100 times as much.
The foundation supports 12 treatment centers operating at full capacity inside North Korea and already has patients lined up for the 18-month course of treatment.
But its shipment for its spring treatment session, which should have left the South Korean port of Pyeongtaek before Feb. 18, has not received export permits, which Linton said had been granted by four successive South Korean administrations, including the current one.
Linton’s pleas to the government to allow three containers of medicine and treatment supplies to be shipped — they have to go to the Chinese port of Dalian, then the North Korean port of Nampo before being moved to the treatment facilities — have not swayed leaders.
Under sanctions unveiled Tuesday, South Korea imposed stronger controls on imports from and exports to North Korea. The measures included an exception for aid to infants and pregnant women only, not to the general population. Furthermore, the U.N. sanctions call for mandatory inspection of cargo going to North Korea, meaning it could take longer for the shipment to get through China.
The centers in North Korea have just enough medication to last through April, when Linton and foundation doctors are due for their next visit.
“These people need additional medication to finish the program, and if they don’t get it, they run the risk of developing additional resistance and dying,” Linton said. “Should they return home to die, everyone who comes into contact with them will be at risk of contracting this particularly dangerous type of ‘super-TB’ ” he said.
Park Soo-jin, a spokeswoman for the South’s Unification Ministry, said that the foundation’s export request was under review and that the government was taking into consideration the urgency of the matter.
“The [South] Korean government maintains the basic principle that we will continue to provide humanitarian aid for the vulnerable in North Korea, including infants and mothers,” she said. “The specific time, amount and area of the aid, however, will be reviewed considering overall circumstances and situation.”