Several U.S. NGOs regularly working in North Korea have since September had applications to visit the country for humanitarian reasons repeatedly rejected by the Department of State, NGOs and those familiar with their situation have told NK News.
At least five NGOs, possibly as many as seven, have in the past month had their exemption requests rejected, an informed NGO source said on condition of anonymity.
The rejections follow the August 30 extension of a ban on American citizens visiting North Korea without express government permission.
“My boss and I were denied a couple weeks ago (despite) previously receiving permission to travel,” said Jennifer Deibart, North Korea Program coordinator at the Mennonite Central Committee.
“It’s a disturbing new trend in American maximum pressure to use humanitarian work” as another lever of pressure, she added.
Since first implementing the travel ban in September 2017, the U.S. Department of State had otherwise provided flexibility for American NGOs to continue their work in North Korea, through broad exemptions designed for journalists, aid workers, and individuals visiting the country in the “national interest.”
But Deibart told NK News that the letter of rejection provided by the State Department said that her group’s “trip is not in the interest of the United States,” with no appeal process available to further discuss the issue.
“The denials are pretty much across the board,” another informed NGO source said, citing delicate relations with the Department of State and the Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) as the reason they preferred to stay anonymous.
“It is really unthinkable… and very, very disturbing,” the source continued, flagging numerous short and long-term consequences to the North’s crisis-ridden health sector.
Keith Luse, Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) – an organization representing several American NGOs in Washington DC – said that while the Trump administration should be commended for its outreach to the North, the apparent effort to stop NGOs meant a “line has been crossed.”
“It has become clear that the Trump Administration regards the provision of humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people as a legitimate target for its maximum pressure campaign,” he said in an emailed statement.
The decision by the Geneva, Switzerland-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in February to halt its multi-million dollar North Korea aid work may have been caused, in part, by U.S. pressure, Luse added.
“Knowledgeable sources in three countries have confirmed to me that behind-the-scenes U.S. pressure was in part responsible for the Global Fund’s decision earlier this year to close its North Korea healthcare programs,” he said.
A State Department official insisted to NK News on Thursday, however, that the exemption rejections to NGOs were, in fact, “not part of a broader pressure campaign.”
“Special validations are reviewed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors,” the official said.
“That a group’s prior application was approved does not guarantee that a new application will be approved.”
In particular, the U.S. continues to “have grave concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention in the DPRK, as well as the diversion and misuse of humanitarian assistance by the DPRK regime for its weapons programs,” the official added.
And in evaluating what constitutes “the “national interest” factor under the (travel ban),” the U.S. remains “very focused on preventing the diversion and misuse of humanitarian assistance by the DPRK regime.”
But while the official didn’t explain how American humanitarian assistance may be being diverted – which includes neurosurgery efforts spearheaded by the likes of the Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Kee Park – there has long been concern about the safety of U.S. nationals visiting the DPRK.
“I favor distributing humanitarian aid to North Koreans in need, but Pyongyang’s practice of arbitrarily arresting American aid workers means they’re all potential hostages,” said Joshua Stanton, who runs the One Free Korea website, on Friday.
“Once again, the North Korean people will suffer because their government doesn’t care how much its decisions hurt them,” he continued. “I hope the NGOs can find qualified non-U.S. staff to carry on their work.”
Another observer with knowledge of DPRK foreign ministry thinking said the issue could have an impact in other areas.
“One of the reasons DPRK is insisting on going slow and at the same time on the nuclear issue is their perception that the U.S. government is reneging on a humanitarian exemption to travel ban,” said Tony Namkung, who regularly consults between U.S. groups and the DPRK.
Overall, the issue struck Stephan Haggard, a regular columnist at NK News and a professor at UC San Diego, “as needless and gratuitous.”
“NGOs provided a needed connection to North Korea, providing insight for us as well as humanitarian support,” he explained.
“The amounts of money are relatively small; the impact is closely monitored and valuable.”
While at least five American NGOs have been impacted this September, multiple U.S. journalists nevertheless traveled to North Korea to report on the nation’s 70th foundation anniversary on September 9.
The event, which included a military parade and mass gymnastics performance, did not appear to clash with the State Department’s definition of “national interest.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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