Aid groups hopeful US will ease North Korea restrictions

US special representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun highlighted that the US recognised the significant humanitarian challenges in North Korea.
US special representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun highlighted that the US recognised the significant humanitarian challenges in North Korea.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Aid groups voiced optimism on Thursday (Jan 10) that the United States would ease restrictions on operations inside North Korea amid warming relations between Washington and the impoverished country.

Mr Stephen Biegun, the US special representative on North Korea, met representatives of aid organisations, which have faced lengthy delays or prohibitions on providing assistance inside the totalitarian state, in Washington on Wednesday.

The United Nations Security Council has imposed strict sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. While humanitarian groups can seek exemptions from a Security Council committee, the US has often refused or delayed consideration of waivers.

Mr Richard Blewitt, the permanent observer to the UN of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said that the meeting discussed humanitarian needs including food support, health and medicine.

Mr Biegun "highlighted that the US recognised the significant humanitarian challenges in (North Korea) and the need by the US government and others to fully enable the humanitarian community to do their work", Mr Blewitt told AFP.

Mercy Corps, a US-based non-governmental group that was active in fighting hunger during North Korea's famine in the 1990s - but halted operations in 2014 - also voiced optimism and said a follow-up meeting was scheduled.

Mr Biegun "made clear that Secretary of State (Mike) Pompeo is committed to considering humanitarian workers' requests, in a timely fashion, to visit North Korea while also taking into account the State Department's concerns over the safety of Americans travelling there", said Mercy Corps spokesman Christopher Allbritton.

 
 
 

The State Department declined to comment on the ongoing talks. But speaking to reporters last month in Seoul, Mr Biegun signalled that the US would be more lenient with aid workers on enforcing its blanket ban on US citizens' travel to North Korea.

President Donald Trump is keen to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un soon, in a sequel to their historic summit in June, as the US seeks an agreement on ending Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday that he believed the summit was "imminent", after Mr Kim held talks in China, North Korea's primary ally.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said after a visit last year that there were "significant humanitarian challenges" in North Korea, with some 20 per cent of children stunted by malnutrition, despite some progress in recent years.