U.S. to Review Curbs on North Korea Humanitarian Aid, Envoy Says

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. nuclear envoy said Washington would review policies preventing Americans from providing humanitarian to North Korea, including the travel ban, in a potential overture to restart talks with Kim Jong Un.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S.’s special representative for North Korea, disclosed the move Wednesday, as he began a four-day trip to South Korea. The former Ford Motor Co. executive will also discuss ways to get nuclear negotiations back on track when he speaks with South Korean officials, he told reporters after arriving in Seoul.

Looming over the visit are President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure a second summit with Kim as soon as January. Talks have made little progress toward containing Kim’s nuclear weapons program and formally ending the Korean War since the two leaders signed a vague agreement during their first meeting six months ago in Singapore.

Biegun said he and his South Korean counterpart would “resume discussion on how to work together to engage DPRK in a manner that helps us move forward and move beyond 70 years of hostility,” referring to North Korea’s formal name.

More than three months after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo selected Biegun to lead negotiations with North Korea, he has barely met officials from Pyongyang face-to-face. The visit will be closely watched for potential meetings with North Korean officials, although none have been announced.

Biegun said he had instructions from Pompeo to review U.S. policies on humanitarian assistance by private and religious American organizations. While such aid is exempted from international sanctions to punish Pyongyang for its development of nuclear weapons, humanitarian groups have reported difficulties delivering medical assistance or food due to sanctions.

Kim has blamed the “vicious” sanctions regime for frustrating his economic development efforts. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who helped facilitate the first Trump-Kim summit, has cited humanitarian relief as one of the things the U.S. could offer North Korea without relaxing economic pressure.  

The U.S. halted American travel to North Korea following a series of detentions, including Ohio student Otto Warmbier, who died last year after his release. In May, North Korea freed three more Americans it had been holding.

Biegun said North Korea released another American citizen accused of illegally entering North Korea about two months ago with “discretion and sensitivity.” That had given the U.S. “greater confidence” about the safety of Americans traveling north of the border, he said.

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