U.S. officials will try to expedite humanitarian aid to North Korea, a U.S. envoy said on Wednesday, as Washington and Pyongyang struggle to find a breakthrough in stalled talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program.
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, made the announcement as he arrived in Seoul for four days of talks with South Korean officials.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to work toward denuclearization at his landmark summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June but the two sides have since made little progress.
With Washington doubling down on sanctions enforcement, humanitarian aid for North Korea has nearly ground to a halt this year, despite warnings of a potential food crisis and improving relations with Pyongyang, aid groups say.
International sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs technically do not cover humanitarian activities, and over the summer the United Nations adopted a U.S. proposal designed to streamline approval for aid shipments.
But strict interpretations of U.N. sanctions curtailing banking and shipping transactions with Pyongyang, as well as a travel ban for U.S. citizens, have effectively shut down the North Korea operations of most relief groups, according to a dozen officials at U.N. agencies and civilian organizations.
“I’ll be sitting down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how we can better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance, particularly through the course of the coming winter,” Biegun told reporters in Seoul, noting that the United States would work with the United Nations in reviewing how it grants sanctions exemptions for aid.
He acknowledged that the travel ban – which requires American aid workers to obtain special permission from the U.S. State Department before traveling to North Korea – “may have impacted the delivery of humanitarian assistance”.
Early next year, U.S. officials will review how they grant that permission for the “purposes of facilitating the delivery of aid”, Biegun said.
Part of the catalyst for the review was the expulsion of an American citizen who had illegally entered North Korea in October, he said.