The International Committee of the Red Cross remains ready to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea and resume projects suspended during the coronavirus pandemic whenever the reclusive country reaches out for aid, an official at the organization has said.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, Olivier Ray, the ICRC's director for mobilization, movement and partnerships, also said that the group maintains contact with the Red Cross Society of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Ray is currently on his first official visit to Seoul to discuss South Korea's humanitarian assistance and increasingly active role on the global stage with high-ranking officials from both government and aid organizations, particularly as it was recently elected as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council.
"As of today, the ICRC does not have access to the DPRK due to the COVID-related restrictions that the government has imposed since 2020," he said during the interview held at the ICRC's Seoul office, referring to the North's official name. "But we remain in contact with the DPRK Red Cross Society, we have some information through that channel and we are ready to reengage whenever we have access."
The director also said that North Korean authorities are aware of the ICRC's willingness to resume operations in Pyongyang.
"The authorities know that when they are ready, we are ready to send a mission to analyze the needs and reassess the condition of our presence," he said.
The Geneva-based ICRC is known for its commitment to humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war, and has operated an office in Pyongyang since 2002.
Regarding escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and growing provocations from the North, Ray stressed the importance of "active neutrality" and making a "clear distinction between those who carry weapons" and civilians in need of humanitarian assistance.
"Our position is clear, we are in favor of the prohibition of nuclear weapons in general for all states," he said. "If we start mixing the concepts, it is a dangerous path towards selecting which victims you will assist."
"And so a child in need of assistance because of war will always be a legitimate beneficiary of humanitarian aid," he added.
In case of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula the ICRC will stay committed to dispatching highly trained "surge teams" or rapid deployment teams from Switzerland with the aim of arriving within 24 hours to help civilians, according to the director.
"We usually say we are the first ones in and the last ones out," he said. "The rapid deployment team will come support, and that's true in any context in any crisis, they will come support the ICRC office in close collaboration with the national (Red Cross) society to deliver at scale because the ICRC has the experience of international armed conflict, negotiating access to the front-line and treating the war-wounded."
Such teams were swiftly deployed to assist civilians in Kyiv when Russia invaded Ukraine and the ICRC now maintains several hundred workers and experts in Ukraine, he added.
Tensions have been running high on the peninsula in recent weeks with the recalcitrant country making a botched attempt to launch a purported military spy satellite last week, triggering air raid sirens in both South Korea and Japan.
With regard to South Korea's growing role on the international stage, Ray said South Korea has a "specific legitimacy and responsibility" on issues related to war and the protection of civilians not only as an emerging economy but as a "first time experiencer" of armed conflict.
"So whether it's on the humanitarian development and peace nexus, on the responsible use of artificial intelligence in the military and on arms trade and arms export, international humanitarian law, including in the cyberspace, all of these are important topics where Korea has an interest and we have an interest, and it's important to bring Korea's voice to the international fora," he said.
He also expressed appreciation to Seoul for its largest-ever contribution to the ICRC last year of more than 10 million Swiss francs.
"We are very grateful for that financial support and we know that Korea has an ambition to have a strong overseas development assistance and to build a real humanitarian policy," he said.
Before joining the ICRC, Olivier was the senior adviser for global affairs to French President Emmanuel Macron, leading on multilateral matters that ranged from global health and environment issues to humanitarian issues, international development projects, and human rights.
Formed in 1863, the ICRC is one of the oldest global humanitarian organizations and is mainly involved in protecting victims of conflicts and providing them with assistance. It opened its offices in North and South Korea in 2002 and 2015, respectively.