South Korea Says Trump Backs Seoul in Food Aid to North Korea

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea said President Donald Trump supports the donation of food to North Korea through a UN agency, as the top U.S. envoy noted the regime’s growing impatience with sputtering nuclear talks.

Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- who has tried to serve as a bridge between the U.S. president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un -- spoke Tuesday about North Korea’s weekend weapons test and reviving nuclear talks that broke down when Trump abruptly ended a summit with Kim in Hanoi in February. Since then, North Korea has raised tensions with threats and military provocations.

“The two heads of state exchanged opinions of the recently announced report on North Korea’s food situation from the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, in which President Trump said that South Korea providing North Korea food supply is very well-timed, and expressed his support, calling it a positive measure,” Moon’s office said after their call late Tuesday.

The White House said the two discussed recent developments with North Korea and “how to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization” of the country. Its brief statement didn’t mention the food aid.

North Korea battles chronic food shortages and has seen previous donations of humanitarian assistance from the U.S. and South Korea as goodwill gestures. But government officials have been cautious with their largess, seeking to make sure aid goes to needy civilians and is not diverted to the state’s war machine.

The U.S.’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, told a senior Japanese lawmaker Wednesday at the start of a visit to Tokyo and Seoul that the weekend weapons test was a sign of impatience after the U.S. rejected Kim’s demands to end sanctions choking his state’s economy, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo declined comment.

Moon -- seeking closer ties with Pyongyang -- has been keen to revive economic projects with North Korea, but has been blocked by the international sanctions vice that was tightened after Kim tested nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2016 and 2017. South Korea cancelled a planned donation about two years ago due to the tests, but the U.S. signaled a softening at the end of last year, when the State Department said it was looking at relaxing curbs on humanitarian aid.

The U.S. and South Korea have played down the significance of the weekend test and have not confirmed the analysis of weapons experts who said the operation included the launch of a short-range ballistic missile, which would be in violation of international sanctions resolutions and complicate Trump’s and Moon’s negotiations with Pyongyang.

Moon’s office said in the two leaders agreed that their reactions to Saturday’s launches were “effective.”

According to the United Nation’s World Food Program, one of the few international humanitarian groups operating in reclusive North Korea, about 40 percent of the population is undernourished, adding “food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread.” The U.S. and South Korea have previously donated food through the WFP for North Korea.

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