U.S. to Ease Limits on Humanitarian Aid to North Korea

Aid groups welcome the move, but it’s not likely to unlock stalled nuclear negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by senior North Korean officials at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang on July 6, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by senior North Korean officials at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang on July 6, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by senior North Korean officials at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang on July 6, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. State Department has decided to ease some of its most stringent restrictions on humanitarian assistance to North Korea, lifting travel restrictions on American aid workers and loosening its block on humanitarian supplies destined for the country, according to several diplomats and relief workers.

The U.S. State Department has decided to ease some of its most stringent restrictions on humanitarian assistance to North Korea, lifting travel restrictions on American aid workers and loosening its block on humanitarian supplies destined for the country, according to several diplomats and relief workers.

The decision—which was communicated to humanitarian aid organizations on Wednesday by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. senior envoy for North Korea—follows claims by United Nations and private relief agencies in recent months that the U.S. policy was undermining their efforts to run life-saving relief operations. Those include programs designed to combat infectious diseases, such as cholera and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The move marked the first significant step in months by the Trump administration to relax its “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang. But it’s unclear whether the action was conceived as a goodwill gesture to Kim Jong Un’s regime to help facilitate further nuclear talks or was a response to mounting diplomatic pressure to soften a policy that threatened the lives of North Korean civilians.

Frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided in the summer to sharply limit the amount of aid allowed into North Korea. As a result, U.S. officials routinely delayed the export of surgical equipment for hospitals, stainless steel milk containers for orphanages, and supplies for fighting tuberculosis and malaria.

But the effort led to protests from humanitarian relief organizations and left the United States diplomatically isolated at the U.N. The drama has been playing out behind closed doors in a U.N. sanctions committee, where the United States has used its influence to block or delay requests by relief groups to deliver assistance to North Korea.

In a confidential Dec. 10, 2018, letter to the U.N. sanctions committee, Omar Abdi, the deputy executive director for the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, complained that the U.S. holds on medical and relief supplies, including ambulances and solar generators needed to power tuberculosis clinics, were undermining the agency’s effort to fight the disease. UNICEF’s North Korea programs, he warned, “may be compromised if the shipment of these outstanding items does not take place on an urgent basis.”

Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution, praised the U.S. decision on humanitarian grounds but said it is unlikely to help advance nuclear talks.

“Reopening humanitarian assistance is the right thing to do,” she said. “But I doubt that this is going to be enough for Kim to now say, ‘I can make progress with Secretary Pompeo.’”

The Trump administration’s pressure campaign on North Korea ramped up after Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, spurring the Security Council to pass in December 2017 a sanctions resolution. The resolution—which targeted North Korea’s energy and export sectors—allowed exemptions for the delivery of humanitarian aid, as long as it was approved by the Security Council sanctions committee. The sanctions are designed to pressure North Korea to enter negotiations aimed at the elimination of its nuclear weapons program.

Since President Donald Trump’s summit in Singapore with Kim last June, diplomatic progress on North Korean nuclear negotiations have stalled as Pyongyang continues to develop its missile programs and dodge overtures from Trump’s senior diplomats. North Korean officials, for example, have spurned the State Department’s requests to meet with Biegun for months. This past November, the State Department announced the cancellation of a planned meeting in New York between Pompeo and a top North Korean intelligence officer.

In December, John Bolton, the U.S. national security advisor, said a second Trump-Kim summit would likely happen this January or February to revive negotiations, even though “they have not lived up to the commitments so far.”

“The president thinks that another summit is likely to be productive,” Bolton said at a press conference in Washington.

Last month, Biegun telegraphed U.S. plans to ease off humanitarian restrictions in remarks delivered in Seoul, saying Pompeo had instructed him to review U.S. policy on humanitarian aid provided by “private and religious American organizations.” Biegun conceded that a U.S. travel ban, imposed last year on American relief workers, “may also have impacted the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” He also pledged to sit 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.”

During this week’s meeting, Biegun encouraged humanitarian relief organizations to reapply for special permits to travel to North Korea. He also suggested there would be a more timely review of applications before the U.N. sanctions committee for requests by aid organizations to ship humanitarian supplies to North Korea, according to Keith Luse, the executive director of the National Committee on North Korea.

“Secretary Pompeo’s support for U.S. humanitarian assistance to the neediest of North Koreans will signal a high-level nod toward trust-building already established over the years between U.S. humanitarian workers and people at the grassroots level,” Luse said.

But efforts to reduce delays in approving shipments of humanitarian goods at the U.N. sanctions committee will have to wait until the U.S. government shutdown ends. American diplomats recently instructed their colleagues on the sanctions committee to extend the deadline for U.S. holds on humanitarian exports, citing the shutdown. The process of reviewing humanitarian exemptions to sanctions is labor-intensive, requiring input from U.S. government technical experts.

Pompeo’s policy shift does not appear to apply to steps taken last year by the Treasury and Commerce departments to tighten financial sanctions on North Korea, according to diplomatic sources. Those efforts, which include restrictions on banking transactions, have also impeded deliveries of humanitarian goods.

FP’s staff diplomatic and national security reporter, Robbie Gramer, contributed to this report.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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