June 16, 2023 | The Hill

Hold the WHO accountable for embracing North Korea

June 16, 2023 | The Hill

Hold the WHO accountable for embracing North Korea

Former President Donald Trump congratulated Kim Jong Un earlier this month after North Korea joined the Executive Board of the World Health Organization. 

Nikki Haley, Trump’s rival for the GOP nomination and former envoy to the United Nations, responded, “Kim Jong Un is a thug. … I don’t think we should ever congratulate dictators.” 

Yet elevating the world’s most repressive dictatorships is standard practice at the WHO, where Syria also serves on the Executive Board and Russia just completed a three-year term. Instead of taking this all in stride, it is time for Congress to leverage the power of the purse to pressure the WHO to reform itself.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, has a history of embracing autocrats. After meeting with Xi Jinping in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tedros memorably said, “I will praise China again and again because its actions actually help in reducing the spread of coronavirus to other countries.” Tedros’s staff knew China was being anything but transparent and cooperative, but Tedros deferred to Beijing.

The WHO’s Executive Board does not just welcome dictatorships; it embraces those that have committed outrages against their people’s health. Russia attacks health care facilities in Ukraine. It also supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s war on his own population, which entailed the regular bombing of hospitals.

The Kim family regime has committed similar crimes. The U.N. described North Korea’s political prison camps as resembling “the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.” The Kim regime incarcerates 80,000 to 120,000 North Koreans in political prison camps (kwanliso). The State Department said prisoners are subjected to “unhygienic living conditions, beatings, torture, rape, a lack of medical care, and insufficient food.”

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization said 41 percent of the North Korean population is undernourished, and nearly one-fifth of North Korean children suffer from impaired growth.

The regime sends North Koreans overseas to work in labor-intensive sectors while the regime keeps up to 90 percent of their wages, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Pyongyang uses that money for its prohibited programs, including its nuclear arsenal, not to feed its hungry population.

There has been little accountability for such abuse since U.N. organizations are reluctant to act against their own members so long as they are paying dues. The U.S. and allies have likewise resigned themselves to the current state of affairs at the WHO. But the Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons (OPCW) set a different example and suspended Syria in April 2021 for using chemical weapons and not declaring its illegal stockpile of the dangerous weapons. U.S. leadership, in concert with allies, helped the OPCW break with its own tradition of impunity. The effort was also bipartisan — it started under Trump’s presidency and was finished by the Biden administration. My colleague Andrea Stricker has detailed how the OPCW’s operations improved after Syria’s suspension.

It is time for the WHO to follow suit. The WHO constitution allows the World Health Assembly, which meets annually in May, to suspend members for financial arrears or “other exceptional circumstances.” The Biden administration would need to start laying the diplomatic foundation for this effort now. It missed a golden opportunity to start in September 2021 to replace Tedros, who has rewarded the administration’s support by increasing his own control over the organization’s budget.

The Biden administration should start by engaging the regional groups that make recommendations to the full WHO membership on executive board positions. The South-East Asia region, which put forward Pyongyang’s candidacy, includes several countries with favorable relationships with the U.S., including India and Indonesia.

Congress can help the administration by using its budget leverage to mandate a shift in U.S. policy. If WHO members are unwilling to suspend autocrats who violate the core values of the organization, Congress can begin by reducing America’s voluntary annual contribution and, if the WHO proves intransigent, eventually halt all funding to the organization.

Defunding the WHO may seem harsh, but it botched the COVID-19 response as well as its investigation into the virus’ origin. The embrace of autocrats raises serious questions about its judgment and ability to reform. It is time to test whether the organization can change or if it is irredeemable.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as the National Security Council’s director for North Korea (2018-2019) and senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense (2019-2021) in the Trump administration.


International Organizations North Korea