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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. has reached out to North Korea during the coronavirus pandemic and offered the country humanitarian help, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday night.
The comment marked the second time in recent weeks that a senior State Department official had made a similar claim about American outreach to the DPRK amid the growing viral outbreak, but it remains unclear what type of direct assistance the U.S. offered, how it was communicated to the North, and whether the alleged gesture was accepted.
Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity, Pompeo said that despite “deep differences” between Washington and Pyongyang — the two countries have been stuck for months in a diplomatic stalemate over nuclear weapons and sanctions — helping the North now, in a moment of crisis, is “the right thing to do.”
“As for Iran, the same true for North Korea,” Pompeo said in response to a comment from Hannity about whether the U.S. should help its adversaries deal with a pandemic.
“These are countries that we have deep differences with, and we are working diligently to create better conditions for their people,” he said. “And part of that is to make sure that we’re available to provide humanitarian assistance when we can.”
“And so we have offered to both the North Koreans as well as to the Iranian people humanitarian assistance, and we’ve offered to facilitate humanitarian assistance coming into those countries from UN organizations, from other countries as well,” he continued.
“We’ll keep doing that; it’s the right thing to do in a time of crisis.”
Last week, Robert A. Destro, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, also implied that the U.S. had offered help to the DPRK.
“I do know that the — that our government has reached out to North Korea, to Iran, and to China — to everybody, and said look, to the extent that we can be useful, we will try and be useful and provide assistance,” he told reporters at the State Department.
“We’ve done that in any number of occasions,” he said.
In the months since the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, first began to spread from China overseas, North Korea has denied having any infections within its borders.
Many DPRK watchers, including the top U.S. military commander in South Korea, have publicly doubted the veracity of those claims.
All three of North Korea’s neighbors have been hit with the virus, and the DPRK is known to have one of the worst-prepared health systems in the world for dealing with infectious diseases.
The State Department declined to formally comment on Pompeo and Destro’s remarks about U.S. offers of help.
Instead, the department referred NK News to a statement last month from spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, in which she said the U.S. would be willing to help aid groups that needed to bypass sanctions and quickly enter North Korea to do their work.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak,” Ortagus said.
“We strongly support and encourage the work of U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK,” she said. “The United States is ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval of assistance from these organizations.”
One former State Department official told NK News that Pompeo and Destro both seem to be implying that the statement last month offering to help humanitarian organizations was actually a direct overture to Pyongyang — even if that’s not exactly what it was.
“I think that they’re both characterizing the public statement as an offer of aid,” said Mintaro Oba, a former department official working on North Korea. “But they don’t necessarily mean the U.S. government has reached out through private channels with a specific offer.”
“It’s possible that the United States could have reached out to North Korea through the New York channel or some other line of communication with this same general message,” he said, referring to a known conduit between Washington and Pyongyang in New York.
“But there’s little to make me think there’s direct humanitarian assistance in the works at the moment,” he said.
“Whatever the case, these statements seem more like rhetoric than reality, and they’ll probably be seen that way in Pyongyang and Tehran.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, at least one of the State Department’s public communications related to Iran has been more explicit than its statements about North Korea.
Late last month, Secretary Pompeo said in a statement that the U.S. was “prepared to assist” the people of Iran, and went on to list ways individual American citizens could help the Iranian people without violating sanctions.
“Persons interested in providing support to the Iranian people should note that certain donations to Iran intended to relieve human suffering, including the donation of medicine, are exempt from U.S. sanctions,” the department said in a statement.
“In addition, the United States maintains broad exceptions and authorizations to its sanctions for the commercial export of food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products to Iran.”
Similar guidance was not made for North Korea.