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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
The U.S. government has revised its policy on humanitarian engagement towards North Korea and will work to better facilitate the flow of private individuals and aid to the country, multiple people engaged in discussions with the U.S. Department of State told NK News on Thursday.
Individuals representing American and international NGOs, the United Nations, and U.S. government departments attended a meeting with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun on Wednesday in Washington D.C. to discuss a review of policy announced late last year.
Among some of the changes the U.S. would be making, according to those at the meeting, is the easing of granting special permissions for American citizens seeking to travel to the DPRK to conduct humanitarian work.
Additionally, the U.S. will work to ease or push through humanitarian exemption requests at the national level through the granting of special licenses and at the UN level via the 1718 Committee, in order to facilitate increased shipments of aid to North Korea, one attendee said.
According to the attendee, who wished to remain anonymous, representatives from the U.S. Department of the Treasury were also present at the meeting to hear the policy changes as well.
The effort to include Treasury officials, the individual said, appeared to be to ensure that the appropriate level of scrutiny would be applied by the U.S. government towards exemptions requests, without impeding humanitarian work.
While the U.S. says it will work to make such changes, Biegun also asserted, according to the source, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s authorization of the policy review and easing of humanitarian engagement was not to be considered a diplomatic concession or a “quid pro quo” deal with the DPRK.
According to the source, Biegun added that while the U.S. government will continue to abstain from providing humanitarian aid to North Korea directly, NGOs are free to do so and – by doing so – would showcase “the best from the U.S.”
“We are pleased that the U.S. government has reconsidered its stance on humanitarian engagement with DPRK,” Jennifer Deibert of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which was confirmed to have had a presence at the meeting with Biegun, told NK News on Thursday.
“I feel hopeful MCC will receive permissions necessary to continue building on more than 23 years of engagement with DPRK through the delivery of aid to vulnerable people.”
Keith Luse, Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) – an organization representing several American NGOs – was also present at the meeting.
“Yesterday’s meeting between Special Representative Biegun and U.S. humanitarian NGOs and UN officials was a continuation of the earlier dialogue with the humanitarian community initiated by Mr. Biegun,” he told NK News on Thursday adding that there would be a third meeting in early spring to continue the dialogue.
According to another informed source in the NGO community who wished to remain anonymous, the developments were seen as very positive and raised NGO hopes that normal activities could be resumed.
A MORE “EXPANSIVE” VIEW FROM WASHINGTON
September 2017 saw the U.S. State Department impose a ban on U.S. citizens traveling to the DPRK in response to concerns “over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention” in North Korea.
The ban, which was extended in August 2018 for a further 12 months, allows for exemptions to be granted for humanitarian workers and other groups such as journalists, diplomats, and those “working in the national interest.”
However, in 2018, American humanitarian workers increasingly complained that their applications for exemptions were being rejected by the State Department.
As many as five NGOs told NK News in October that they had been affected by travel rejections the month prior.
According to an attendee at the meeting, Biegun said that the State Department would adopt a more “expansive” view of the requests for such exemptions and encouraged those who were previously rejected to resubmit.
“A clear takeaway from the session was that Secretary Pompeo is committed to a process of providing timely consideration to humanitarian workers’ requests to visit North Korea while concurrently factoring State Department concern for the safety of Americans traveling anywhere in the world,” NCNK’s Luse told NK News on Thursday.
Deibert, who along with her boss had been denied travel exemptions in 2018, told NK News on Thursday she was hoping to once again “receive Special Validation Passports as we have received in the past.”
Humanitarian workers, however, would still need to make a case for the exemptions and include details about how they would monitor aid deliveries or activities, it was communicated at the meeting according to one attendee.
Additionally, international humanitarian groups had complained that sanctions on North Korea were impeding the delivery of humanitarian goods to the country throughout 2018.
While UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions state that they are not intended or designed to impede humanitarian activities, organizations and workers have reported encountering adverse consequences and an increasingly complex operational environment due to sanctions.
In order to better facilitate such deliveries, the UNSC in August agreed to adopt new guidelines to streamline the process of obtaining humanitarian exemptions from international sanctions via the UN’s 1718 Committee.
Currently, there are only two active exemptions in effect through this channel, with UNICEF and the Eugene Bell Foundation receiving permission to transport goods to North Korea on October 19 and November 20 of 2018 respectively.
According to an attendee at Wednesday’s meeting, Biegun acknowledged there was a backlog of exemption requests currently facing the 1718 Committee and that these would now be pushed forward.
AN OBSERVABLE CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
Throughout 2018 as negotiations stalled, the U.S. was widely seen by American NGOs to be impeding humanitarian work in, or aid deliveries to, North Korea.
As a result, the government increasingly came under public criticism from such NGOs, DPRK watchers and former government officials for what was seen by some as a policy of including humanitarian aid as an element within the “maximum pressure” strategy towards North Korea.
In a statement to NK News in October, however, the State Department denied such assertions and said that the rejections were “not part of a broader pressure campaign.”
“Special validations are reviewed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors,” an official said at the time.
In particular, the U.S. continued 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. remained “very focused on preventing the diversion and misuse of humanitarian assistance by the DPRK regime” the official told NK News.
But while a U.S. policy shift towards better facilitating humanitarian engagement appears to be taking place, the informed source in the NGO community stressed this does not mean that barriers to humanitarian work are being dismantled.
“The significant legal/administrative hurdles (largely erected in 2017/18) have not magically disappeared overnight – we still face very intense scrutiny and high administrative/legal burdens for our work,” the source said via email, referencing U.S. Department of Commerce, State, and Treasury restrictions.
However, the source added, the largest change appears to be that “the presumption is now more towards approval for humanitarian support/engagement, rather than a presumption of denial.”
“We remain concerned about payment issues (international banking) vis a vis purchases made in third countries, and customs clearance,” the source said, adding however, that the policy shift was a hopeful first step.
NK News sought comment from the U.S. Department of State and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Edited by Oliver Hotham