Margie Mason

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA: New international sanctions aimed at thwarting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are having unintended consequences: halting money transfers by foreign humanitarian groups working to help those most in need and forcing some agencies to carry suitcases of cash in from outside.

At the same time, some restrictions are meant to sting the country’s elite by crippling the import of luxury goods, such as yachts, fancy cars and jewelry. But they do not appear to be stopping the well-heeled from living large in the capital Pyongyang.

Much of the aid group difficulties are linked to the state-run Bank of China’s decision earlier this month to follow Washington’s lead and sever ties with the North’s Foreign Trade Bank, the main money transfer route for most foreign organizations, U.N. agencies and embassies in Pyongyang. With that line cut, aid workers in North Korea say they are left with few other options to receive foreign currency for expenses including rent, bills and salaries for local staff.

The sanctions are not supposed to affect humanitarian aid, but six Pyongyang-based aid organizations headquartered in Europe issued a communique earlier this month spelling out their frustrations and calling the difficulties in transferring money to North Korea a “big problem.” They warned that they may be forced to suspend their operations if they cannot find ways to access cash.

A handful of American non-governmental organizations also work in North Korea, but they cycle in and out and do not maintain a permanent presence.

Gerhard Uhrmacher, program manager for German humanitarian aid organization Welthungerhilfe, said when recent bank transfers failed, he managed to keep projects running by routing $643,000 to Chinese or North Korean accounts in China to pay for building supplies and other goods.