Sanctions or Saving Lives? Washington Juggles Another Pyongyang Dilemma

Trump administration pares back controversial “maximum pressure” strategy to allow charities to work in North Korea.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
South Koreans watch U.S. President Donald Trump meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a television screen at a railway station in Seoul on Feb. 27. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
South Koreans watch U.S. President Donald Trump meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a television screen at a railway station in Seoul on Feb. 27. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

In the weeks leading up to U.S. President Donald Trump’s failed summit this week in Hanoi with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the Trump administration reversed a key component of its so-called maximum pressure campaign, easing a controversial policy that sharply restricted the ability of private charities to deliver life-saving assistance to North Korea.

Since the beginning of the year, U.S. diplomats have lifted freezes at the United Nations Security Council on millions of dollars worth of contracts for medical supplies, including equipment needed to combat drug-resistant tuberculosis and relief goods that it had held up for several months. The Trump administration has also indicated it is planning to ease travel restrictions on American relief workers seeking to visit Pyongyang.

The moves came in response to mounting criticism from relief agencies and diplomatic counterparts on the U.N. Security Council that the Trump administration’s restrictions on aid were jeopardizing international efforts to combat the spread of infectious diseases, including multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. But it also served as a signal to Pyongyang on the eve of this week’s summit that Washington is prepared to ease its chokehold on Kim’s regime if he takes steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In the end, the calculation proved insufficient, as President Trump cut short his talks with Kim over a dispute on sanctions relief. Trump claimed that Kim insisted all sanctions be lifted in exchange for dismantling a critical nuclear facility.  “Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump told reporters in Hanoi after the talks collapsed.

Still, while relief agencies have welcomed Washington’s moves as vital first steps, they say that their efforts to deliver aid remain mired in a mess of bureaucratic red tape that continues to undermine efforts to address North Korea’s humanitarian needs. An extensive regime of biting sanctions has scared off suppliers and shipping companies from delivering any supplies to North Korea—even if they are legal.

“To be frank, I think [the latest policy shift] is welcome: a lot of NGOs were very concerned about access to tuberculosis medicine and the threat that poses to North Korea and the whole region,” said Charissa Zehr, the legislative affairs specialist for the Mennonite Central Committee, an American relief and peace agency.

But Zehr added the Trump administration has been slow to implement its new policy.

Her religious charity has received a green light in recent weeks to deliver assistance from the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.N. Security Council committee, but they are still awaiting approval from the U.S. Treasury Department for a request last August to spend cash in North Korea and to collaborate with a local partner on a program to support pediatric hospitals in that country. A request by the Mennonite committee for travel to North Korea has not yet been approved. “We have appreciated the fact that [the State Department] has been pretty communicative with us,” Zehr told Foreign Policy. But she added: “We were promised all these things will move forward, but we have not had much forward progress.”

A spokesperson for the Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment on any delay in approval for the Mennonite committee, citing a policy of not disclosing whether it has approved licenses for aid agencies operating in North Korea. The spokesperson said, however, that while the United States expects all nations to fully implement U.N. Security Council sanctions, “activities to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in North Korea are generally authorized.”

In order to deliver assistance in North Korea, U.S. charities need to secure approvals from the U.S. Commerce Department, the Treasury Department, and the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee. American relief workers, meanwhile, are required to obtain special travel passports from the State Department to travel to North Korea.

That process has become increasingly cumbersome since last summer, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, frustrated by North Korea’s sluggish response to his diplomatic overtures, promoted an intensification of the maximum pressure campaign.

But the Trump administration’s policy generated intense pushback from U.N. relief agencies, Christian charities, and some of Washington’s closest diplomatic allies at the United Nations. A U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions in North Korea expressed concern in an unpublished report that a U.N.-authorized exemption for humanitarian imports has not been adequate, and that charities “continue to experience difficulties in meeting critical life-saving needs of vulnerable populations in [North Korea].”

In December, Trump’s North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun vowed in a speech in Seoul that the United States has heard their concerns and would take steps to ease the flow of aid.

In the past weeks, the United States has approved a flood of previously blocked relief supplies from UNICEF, the International Federation of Red Cross, and other private charities. Since January, the U.N. sanctions committee for North Korea has approved 13 contracts for relief to North Korea, including water and sanitation equipment, steel soy milk containers, and supplies for combating tuberculosis, malaria, and hepatitis. In the second half of 2018, the council had approved only two.

And yet some relief workers said that the struggle to get that aid to North Korea is not over.

One relief agency that secured long-awaited approval at the United Nations has since been informed by its American shipper that it is no longer willing to transport aid to North Korea.

“A company that is trying to do business in North Korea doesn’t have time to navigate [the myriad bureaucratic] hurdles,” said a second relief worker. “They have got bigger fish to fry.”

Chinese customs officials, meanwhile, have stopped some supplies at Chinese ports, requiring further proof, written in Chinese, that the council has indeed authorized the shipments.

The bureaucracy that has taken root as a result of extensive U.N. and U.S. sanctions has complicated the ability of humanitarian aid organizations to respond to needs in North Korea, despite a series of humanitarian aid exemptions written in U.N. sanctions resolutions.

The United States, meanwhile, has developed a narrow definition of humanitarian assistance—primarily limited to life-saving medicines and food—and aggressively pursued companies for sanctions violations.

Even if a private charity is licensed to deliver aid, it may find that “it’s hard to find banks and shipping companies to work with you, because the United States has created this climate of fear around any transaction related to North Korea,” Zehr said.

“It is a minefield,” the second relief worker said. “There are many suppliers that when you mention the words ‘North Korea’ will not sell to you. Some partners say, ‘We don’t want our medicine going to North Korea.’”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch