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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The world must remain united in efforts to pressure North Korea into relinquishing its nuclear weapons, the U.S. Secretary of State said Wednesday, amid calls for a relaxation of some sanctions to help mitigate a global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In comments that come just a few days after President Donald Trump signalled a willingness to help the DPRK mitigate the effects of a potential coronavirus outbreak, Mike Pompeo appeared to signal that the administration’s humanitarian overtures do not represent a shift in its broader North Korea policy.
Speaking at a meeting of G7 foreign ministers, Pompeo described the DPRK’s nuclear and missile developments as “illegal” and urged international counterparts to maintain united in their efforts to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
“The G7, and all nations, must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations, and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the Secretary of State told reporters at a press briefing at the State Department following the meeting.
The devastating outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked global calls for a relaxation of international sanctions against, among others, North Korea and Iran.
Speaking on Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that those sanctions had “impeded” the ability of countries — including North Korea — to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,” she said.
“In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.”
But the U.S. appears to have decided against any short-term adjustments to the sanctions regime for the timebeing, with Wednesday’s remarks representing the latest turn in what has come to resemble a good-cop, bad-cop routine between the two countries.
For months, the U.S. and DPRK have been locked in a standoff over nuclear weapons and sanctions relief, with the relationship wobbling back and forth between open hostility, humanitarian gestures, and the diplomatic equivalent of the silent treatment.
Over the weekend, Kim Yo Jong — the sister of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and a high-ranking official in her own right — declared that the “excellent” personal relationship between the two nations’ leaders would have no effect on the broader U.S.-DPRK relationship.
North Korea also conducted three rounds of short-range ballistic missile tests this month, while the U.S. and its ally South Korea canceled military drills because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The DPRK officially denies having any COVID-19 cases within its borders, and has continued to conduct military exercises even as many governments around the world are scrambling to contain the highly contagious virus.
For his part, Pompeo is not the only high-level official to describe the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program as “illegal” in recent weeks.
Last month, during a visit to Washington, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, used the same language when talking about Pyongyang’s weapons development.
“North Korea is an illegal nuclear power,” he said at the time. “We do not recognize it, we do not accept that it is a nuclear weapons state, legally speaking.”
Pompeo’s remarks on Wednesday marked the second time in just over a week that the top American diplomat had spoken publicly about North Korea.
Last Wednesday, Pompeo said that despite “deep differences” between Washington and Pyongyang, helping the DPRK now, in a moment of crisis, is “the right thing to do.”
“As for Iran, the same true for North Korea,” he said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham