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Trump reluctantly agrees to Moon sending food aid to North

May 10,2019
The United States will not “intervene” with South Korean plans to send food aid to North Korea, according to the White House on Wednesday.

“Our position in regards to North Korea is going to continue to be the maximum pressure campaign,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters in Washington. “Our focus is on the denuclearization.”

The Blue House earlier said that U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone conversation with President Moon Jae-in Tuesday expressed support for South Korea’s plans to offer humanitarian food aid to the North, which is facing its worst food situation in a decade.

When asked to confirm if U.S. President Donald Trump is okay with the sending of food after the North weapons test last Saturday, Sanders responded, “If South Korea moves forward on that front, we’re not going to intervene.”

Washington has maintained that it will continue to maintain stringent economic sanctions on North Korea until its denuclearization. However, humanitarian assistance does not go against UN Security Council sanctions on the North.

The United States could have determined that Russia and China may be increasing its influence on North Korea through food aid and its approval of food aid from the South could deter such reliance on its traditional allies. Russia in April reportedly allocated 50,000 metric tons of wheat to North Korea ahead of leader Kim Jong-un’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump likewise said last month at his summit with President Moon Jae-in in Washington that he was “okay” with certain humanitarian assistance such as food aid.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with ABC Sunday said that humanitarian assistance is “permissible” and that “sanctions permit the North Koreans to purchase food products.” But he called last weekend’s weapons tests by Kim Jong-un “unfortunate,” saying “the money could have gone to taking care of his own people.” Pompeo in a speech at the Lancaster House in London on Wednesday said the international community needs to continue its pressure campaign on North Korea including deterring illegal transshipment of fuel to North Korea.

The secretary said that Trump has led a “tough diplomacy towards the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” adding that “the pressure campaign that the world has engaged in must continue” as the outcome of the denuclearization negotiations “is imperative for the security of the world.”

He went onto thank the British Royal Navy for deploying its ships to the Pacific “to deter illicit ship-to-ship transfers on North Korean fuel that would have undermined those sanctions,” adding “this must continue.”

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, arrived in Seoul Wednesday for a four-day trip expected to include discussions on the issue of food aid to North Korea. Biegun’s visit to Seoul, his first since the second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, collapsed in February, comes days after Pyongyang’s launch of short-range projectiles into the East Sea on Saturday.

Seoul has been reviewing plans for food assistance to North Korea including the amount to allocate, timing and method, which could involve aid through an international organization or directly through the government.

On Thursday, Biegun had a breakfast meeting with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs. He was also scheduled to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha Friday morning.

Biegun and Lee will hold monthly bilateral working level talks Friday on North Korea’s denuclearization and developing inter-Korean relations.

Allison Hooker, a U.S. National Security Council official, and Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary for North Korea, will also be on the U.S. team in discussions, while foreign affairs, unification, defense and Blue House officials will represent the South Korean side.

“The two sides plan on sharing and evaluating the most recent situation, and based on this discuss comprehensively how to cooperate to progress the peace process as well as the inter-Korean and North-U.S. relations,” a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Thursday.

The issue of food assistance to the North could “be brought up in various channels, including the working group talks or in bilateral discussions,” the official said.

On the details of food aid to North Korea, the official said, “The amount and timeline is something that will be discussed in related agencies. North Korea issues in general including whether there are any sanctions violations are discussed with the United States.”

David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), is scheduled to hold talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang on Monday in Seoul.

They are expected to discuss a “joint response to the global humanitarian crisis” and “exchange opinions” on the food supply assessment for North Korea by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said Kim Deuk-hwan, deputy spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Thursday.

On food aid, spokesman Kim said, “Our government is aware that the North Korean people are in need of humanitarian assistance to improve the humanitarian situation, and this is a perception that is shared by South Korea and the United States.”

He added that the South Korean government plans to “cooperate closely with the United States and international community to push for humanitarian food assistance to the North Korean people.”

This marks the third visit by Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina and House representative, since he took the post in 2017.

The recent FAO report found that after the worst harvest in 10 years due to dry spells, heat waves and flooding, about 10.1 million people, or 40 percent of the population, suffer from severe food shortages. The report concluded that the reduced harvest has led to an uncovered food deficit of 1.36 million metric tons.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]