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US Humanitarian Aid Goes to North Korea Despite Nuclear Tensions

Workers recover cement blocks from flood-damaged areas in Onsong, North Korea, Sept. 16, 2016.

The United States has provided $1 million in humanitarian aid to impoverished North Korea, the U.S. State Department said Wednesday.

Despite growing tensions between North Korea and Washington, the U.S. sent the assistance last week on the day before President Donald Trump was sworn in and took over the U.S. government.

It marks the first time that the U.S. provided humanitarian assistance to the North since 2011, when it provided relief items including medical supplies to North Korean flood victims. That aid, worth $900,000, was made through Samaritan's Purse, a U.S.-based humanitarian aid organization.

President Barack Obama arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Aid to help typhoon damage

The current assistance comes in the aftermath of Typhoon Lionrock, which hit North Korea in August with heavy rain that resulted in flooding. At the time, the government reported hundreds were dead and missing, and said thousands had lost their homes. International aid organizations responded immediately.

Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry awarded $1 million for North Korea to UNICEF, a U.N. agency, the day before President Donald Trump took office last week.

The State Department confirmed the assistance in an email to VOA and said the funding was destined only for humanitarian assistance. However, a spokesman added that U.S. officials are “currently reviewing last-minute spending approved by the previous administration.”

News of U.S. assistance to North Korea came as a surprise to some officials in Washington and Seoul, since both countries have been increasing pressure on Pyongyang since the communist country conducted multiple nuclear tests last year.

Nuclear standoff affects aid to North

According to a report by Congressional Research Service, the United States provided the North over $1.3 billion in assistance, mostly food aid and energy assistance, between 1995 and 2008. Since early 2009, the U.S. has withheld all types of humanitarian aid to North Korea, while denying any connection between its political relations with the regime and humanitarian assistance.

In February 2012, Washington struck a deal with Pyongyang, known as the "Leap Day" agreement, in which the U.S. agreed to resume large-scale food assistance on the condition that the North promise to refrain from further testing nuclear weapons. The agreement was scrapped less than three weeks later, after the North announced a plan to launch a long-range rocket.

Jenny Lee contributed to this report.