US officials will try to expedite humanitarian aid to North Korea, a US envoy said yesterday, as Washington and Pyongyang struggle to find a breakthrough in stalled talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear programme.
Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, made the announcement as he arrived in Seoul for four days of talks with South Korean officials.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to work towards denuclearisation at his landmark summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June but the two sides have since made little progress.
With Washington doubling down on sanctions enforcement, humanitarian aid for North Korea has nearly ground to a halt this year, despite warnings of a potential food crisis and improving relations with Pyongyang, aid groups say.
International sanctions imposed over North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes technically do not cover humanitarian activities, and over the summer the United Nations adopted a US proposal designed to streamline approval for aid shipments.
But strict interpretations of UN sanctions curtailing banking and shipping transactions with Pyongyang, as well as a travel ban for US citizens, have effectively shut down the North Korea operations of most relief groups, according to a dozen officials at UN agencies and civilian organisations.
"I'll be sitting down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how we can better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance, particularly through the course of the coming winter," Biegun told reporters in Seoul, noting that the United States would work with the United Nations in reviewing how it grants sanctions exemptions for aid.
He acknowledged that the travel ban - which requires American aid workers to obtain special permission from the US State Department before travelling to North Korea - "may have impacted the delivery of humanitarian assistance".
Early next year, US officials will review how they grant that permission for the "purposes of facilitating the delivery of aid", Biegun said.
Part of the catalyst for the review was the expulsion of an American citizen who had illegally entered North Korea in October, he said.
North Korea handled the man's case "expeditiously and with great discretion", giving American officials "greater confidence about the safety and security of Americans travelling" to North Korea, Biegun said.
Biegun's visit to Seoul comes as negotiations between the United States and North Korea appear stalled, with the two sides yet to reschedule talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after abruptly cancelling a meeting in November.
Trump has said a second summit with Kim is likely to take place in January or February, though he wrote on Twitter last week that he is "in no hurry".
North Korea has for years pursued nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions but the bellicose rhetoric from both Pyongyang and Trump that raised fears of war has eased this year.