FILE - A North Korean flag flutters in the wind atop a tower in North Korea's village of Gijungdongseen, as seen from the Taesungdong freedom village inside the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
FILE - A North Korean flag flutters in the wind atop a tower in North Korea's village of Gijungdongseen, as seen from the Taesungdong freedom village inside the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, April 27, 2018.

North Korea’s call on the United Nations to cut its international staff involved in humanitarian work there could be a move to gain leverage over sanctions relief, a human rights expert said Thursday.

Pyongyang told the U.N. in an August 21 letter it wants the world body to slash the number of aid workers inside the country by the end of the year because U.N. programs have been ineffective, according to a Wednesday report  by Reuters.  The news service quoted Kim Chang Min, secretary general for North Korea’s National Coordinating Committee for the U.N., as writing that “U.N. supported programs failed to bring the results as desired due to the politicization of U.N. assistance by hostile forces” in the letter.

The letter comes at a time when talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalled since their Hanoi summit in February failed due to their difference over denuclearization and sanctions relief.  The United States rejected North Korea's proposal for sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization while asking it to carry out complete denuclearization.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, however, called the letter "an insidious way of blackmailing the international community.”  Scarlatoiu wrote in a Thursday email that North Korea is essentially saying unless sanctions are eased “we will punish you by restricting your access to those North Korean people who need assistance.”

Scarlatoiu said North Korea is “politicizing and weaponizing humanitarian aid” and “using its vulnerable people as hostage and leverage” to obtain sanctions relief.

“The North Korean regime focuses on the sanctions as the root cause of its precarious humanitarian situation,” Scarlatoiu said.  “This is a serious distortion of the truth.  It is the regime’s deliberate policy of human rights denial that results in severe human insecurity in North Korea.”

The U.N. Security Council began ratcheting up sanctions on North Korea in 2006 in response to its nuclear test in the same year, and in 2016, started imposing sanctions targeting North Korea’s key export commodities such as coal and seafood to cut off funds that flow into its nuclear and missile programs.   The United Nations has been granting sanctions exemptions to humanitarian groups to provide aids to North Korea.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Tuesday that sanctions on North Korea are impeding humanitarian work there.

Scarlatoiu, though, said, “Humanitarian operators may be negatively affected by some unintended side effects of the sanctions regime,” but that the sanctions "do not target the people of North Korea."

"The perennial human insecurity affecting the people of North Korea has persisted for three decades…[and is] are systematic," he said, "What North Korea needs is comprehensive economic, political, and social reform.”

Daniel Jaspers, public education and advocacy coordinator for Asia at the American Friends Service Committee, said the North Korean letter "points to an issue that humanitarian groups have been raising for a number of years – namely that sanctions are impeding humanitarian operations and aid delivery” in an email to VOA on Thursday.  He continued, “These obstacles in aid delivery are despite U.N. regulations which clearly state that sanctions are not meant to interfere with humanitarian work.”  

U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters Thursday that the United Nations had received the letter, and said it is currently talking with North Korea.  He said the U.N. already has “a light footprint on ground” and that keeping the current number of humanitarian staff in North Korea is “vital” in mobilizing resources to support U.N.’s food, water, and nutrition programs in the country.