The Biden administration is facing calls to review sanctions that affect humanitarian efforts in North Korea even as the regime of Kim Jong Un rejects talks with the United States and maintains strict pandemic border closures.
Senator Edward Markey and Representative Andy Levin, both Democrats, sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging the administration to ease the Treasury Department's regulations that limit humanitarian aid to North Korea.
"The dire situation in North Korea warrants a reversal of U.S. policies that block private humanitarian aid shipments and prevent private aid workers from traveling there" once the border reopens, wrote the lawmakers in a letter dated November 5.
Markey and Levin also called on the State Department to expedite Special Validation Passports for U.S. humanitarian workers.
The letter comes as North Korea has largely rejected U.S. calls for resuming talks that have been deadlocked since October 2019 and as the regime maintains border lockdowns while conducting multiple missile launches.
North Korea closed its borders in January 2020 to fend off the coronavirus. That isolation, coupled with natural disasters and a poorly managed centralized economy, led to widespread food shortages.
Last month, North Korean leader Kim ordered people to salvage every grain of rice, according to South Korea's intelligence agency.
The regime also encouraged people to consume black swan meat last month, promoting it as "delicious" and having "high nutritional value," according to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
Amid the deepening food crisis, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, called on the U.N. Security Council to consider easing sanctions on North Korea that affect humanitarian conditions.
"I have recommended that especially under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Security Council resolutions committee should reevaluate the sanctions regime under these circumstances and when necessary to ease those sanctions that bring these obstacles," Quintana said on October 22.
Quintana told VOA's Korean Service earlier in October that "limitations on the importation of fuel, machinery and spare parts have unintended effects on energy security, civil transport, agriculture, health care, sanitation and hygiene. Export bans on seafood and textiles affect employment. All these negatively impact economic, social and cultural rights of (the) civilian population."
China and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council, recently called for ending sanctions that ban exports of seafood and textiles. In a draft resolution circulated to the council, Beijing and Moscow said sanctions should be eased "with the intent of enhancing the livelihood of the civilian population."
The U.S. State Department told VOA's Korean Service on Tuesday it hopes North Korea is open to accepting international aid.
"We continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid in the hope that the DPRK will accept it," said a State Department spokesperson, using the acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.
"The U.S. government is involved in efforts to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to the neediest North Koreans," the spokesperson added. "This is most evident in our ongoing work to expediate approvals in the U.N.'s 1718 Committee (Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea) for organizations from around the world to deliver lifesaving aid to the DPRK."
According to Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, lifesaving humanitarian assistance such as treatments for tuberculosis and hepatitis are exempt from sanctions.
Border shutdown a challenge
Experts said the biggest barrier to getting humanitarian aid to North Korea is the nation's border shutdown. The Kim regime must open the borders before any humanitarian work and sanctions relaxation could be considered, they said.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, "The main obstacle to humanitarian aid is North Korea itself and the barriers it has thrown up that have closed its borders."
Revere added, "Humanitarian assistance to North Korea is possible despite existing sanctions."
Jerome Sauvage, the U.N. resident coordinator in North Korea from November 2009 to January 2013, agrees that North Korea needs to reopen its borders but believes easing sanctions could help.
"Right now, the border shutdown prevents humanitarian organizations to come (into) the country. They must enter the country to verify the situation and to monitor the aid. Without their presence, there can be no aid," he said.
"We can ease sanctions on humanitarian aid and still monitor the aid and ensure that it reaches the people," Sauvage added.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, "I think there is room for streamlining, improving" the approval process of humanitarian exemptions. "I don't necessarily see a need to ease sanctions for humanitarian aid — if we facilitate the current process and make it better."
Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "If North Korea shows interest in pursuing humanitarian cooperation with international organizations on pandemic-related issues, I believe sanctions exemptions would be forthcoming."
North Korea dismissed U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian aid in July, calling it a "sinister political scheme."
Jiha Ham contributed to this report.