SEOUL • US officials will try to expedite humanitarian aid to North Korea, a US envoy said yesterday, as Washington and Pyongyang struggle to find a breakthrough in stalled talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear programme.
Mr Stephen Biegun, the US 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 towards denuclearisation at his landmark summit with US 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 programmes technically do not cover humanitarian activities, and over the summer the United Nations adopted a US proposal designed to streamline approval for aid shipments.
But strict interpretations of UN sanctions curtailing banking and shipping transactions with Pyongyang, as well as a travel ban for US citizens, have effectively shut down the North Korea operations of most relief groups, according to a dozen officials at UN agencies and civilian organisations.
"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," Mr Biegun told reporters in Seoul, noting that the US would work with the UN 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 US State Department before travelling to North Korea - "may have impacted the delivery of humanitarian assistance".
Mr Biegun's visit to Seoul comes as negotiations between the US and North Korea appear stalled, with the two sides yet to reschedule talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after abruptly cancelling a meeting last month. Mr Trump has said a second summit with Mr Kim is likely to take place next month or February.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who is due to meet Mr Biegun tomorrow, said the nuclear talks would face a critical moment between February and March. "I think it is fair to say that the denuclearisation process is not yet on track in earnest," Mr Cho was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.
Mr Biegun is expected to discuss inter-Korean issues with Mr Cho amid US concerns that Seoul may be moving too quickly with Pyongyang relative to the lacklustre progress on denuclearisation.