The United States supports humanitarian aid for North Korea regardless of progress on the country’s denuclearization, the U.S. envoy to Pyongyang said Tuesday.
The comments by the envoy, Sung Kim, came at the end of his four-day visit to Seoul, where he reiterated his readiness to meet North Korean leaders “anywhere, anytime.”
In a column in South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper, Kim also said the United States supports humanitarian cooperation projects between North and South Korea and is “open to exploring meaningful confidence-building initiatives.”
“The United States will continue to support the provision of humanitarian aid, consistent with international standards for access and monitoring, to the most vulnerable North Koreans, regardless of progress on denuclearization,” Kim wrote.
Kim did not elaborate on what types of humanitarian aid are under consideration. But his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, said Monday the two men discussed initiatives related to healthcare, pandemic quarantine measures, clean drinking water, and hygiene.
“We also talked about humanitarian support to the North through international organizations and nongovernmental organizations,” Noh added.
South Korea has repeatedly offered assistance to fight the spread of coronavirus and other aid to North Korea, which is impoverished in many areas and has an uneven healthcare system. But Pyongyang has ignored or rejected such offers. Pyongyang says it hasn’t had COVID-19 cases yet and the government announced this week that it has developed its own equipment to conduct coronavirus tests, according to an announcement on state media.
Back and forth
There was some brief optimism late last month, when North and South Korean leaders announced the existence of high-level dialogue along with the restoration of several inter-Korean communication lines that Pyongyang had severed a year earlier.
But ties went frosty again — and North Korea stopped answering the South’s twice daily hotline calls — after Seoul and Washington this month went ahead with annual summer military exercises.
In his editorial Tuesday, Sung Kim defended the drills, saying the United States “does not have hostile intent” toward North Korea.
“The U.S.- (South Korea) combined military exercises, which are currently underway, are longstanding, routine, and purely defensive, and support the security of both our countries,” he added.
More tensions coming?
Many Korea watchers expect the North to soon conduct a weapons test, which could further raise tensions.
Last week, North Korea reportedly declared a no-sail zone for ships off its east coast — a routine it occasionally conducts to warn vessels to stay away from areas affected by missile tests. But a launch never occurred during the period, according to South Korean officials quoted in local media.
Senior North Korean military general Kim Yong Chol earlier this month warned of a “huge security crisis” after the United States and South Korea announced they would move ahead with the military drills.
Pyongyang sees the exercises as a provocation and often uses them as an occasion to conduct its own weapons tests or issue verbal threats.
At the beginning of 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned he will no longer be bound by his self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile launches or nuclear tests.
But many analysts suspect North Korea will not take any step that risks bringing further economic and diplomatic isolation.
North Korea is already dealing with economic hardship caused by its severe coronavirus lockdown, as well as several natural disasters, such as a heat wave and floods, that have hurt its agriculture.
The North is also under U.S. and United Nations sanctions, which are meant to pressure Pyongyang to halt its development of nuclear weapons program and ballistic missiles.
Some aid groups have complained the sanctions make efforts to provide urgent international aid to North Korea more difficult; the U.S. says mechanisms are in place for those groups to receive humanitarian exemptions.
Kim Jong Un sought sanctions relief and other concessions in 2018 and 2019, when he met three times with then U.S. President Donald Trump.
But after those talks broke down, North Korea focused its attention inward, saying the country would have to live under sanctions for the foreseeable future.
For the past year and a half, North Korea has been in a severe pandemic lockdown, sealing its borders, cutting imports, and restricting domestic travel.