The U.S. State Department has decided to ease some of its most stringent restrictions on humanitarian assistance to North Korea, lifting travel restrictions on American aid workers and loosening its block on humanitarian supplies destined for the country, according to several diplomats and relief workers.
The decision—which was communicated to humanitarian aid organizations by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. senior envoy for North Korea—follows claims by United Nations and private relief agencies in recent months that the U.S. policy was undermining their efforts to run life-saving relief operations. Those include programs designed to combat infectious diseases, such as cholera and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
The move marked the first significant step in months by the Trump administration to relax its “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang. But it’s unclear whether the action was conceived as a goodwill gesture to Kim Jong Un’s regime to help facilitate further nuclear talks or was a response to mounting diplomatic pressure to soften a policy that threatened the lives of North Korean civilians.
U.S. officials routinely delayed the export of surgical equipment for hospitals, stainless steel milk containers for orphanages, and supplies for fighting tuberculosis and malaria. But the effort led to protests from humanitarian relief organizations and left the United States diplomatically isolated at the U.N. The drama has been playing out behind closed doors in a U.N. sanctions committee, where the United States has used its influence to block or delay requests by relief groups to deliver assistance to North Korea.
In a confidential Dec 10, 2018 letter to the U.N. sanctions committee, Omar Abdi, the deputy executive director for the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, complained that the U.S. holds on medical and relief supplies, including ambulances and solar generators needed to power tuberculosis clinics, were undermining the agency’s effort to fight the disease.