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US to review travel ban, sanctions to enable aid for N. Korea: US nuclear envoy

The US plans to review sanctions slapped on North Korea and a travel ban preventing American citizens from traveling to the communist state to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to North Koreans, a US special envoy said Wednesday.


Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, made the announcement to reporters as he arrived in Seoul for a four-day trip to meet with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, and other officials.

“I’ll be sitting down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how we can better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance, particularly through the course of the coming winter,” Biegun said.

The strict enforcement of international sanctions imposed on North Korea has impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid to the impoverished country, which is grappling with food shortages.

“We will also review American citizen travel to DPRK for purposes of facilitating the delivery of aid and ensuring that monitoring in line with international standards can occur,” he said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Donald Trump administration enacted the travel ban in September 2017 after an American university student, Otto Warmbier, died as a result of brain damage he suffered in a North Korean prison. Warmbier was arrested in 2016 while on a tour in Pyongyang.

Amid a rapprochement between the US and North Korea this year, North Korea released three American citizens who had been detained in the reclusive country in May. The move took place ahead of a historic summit with the US in June in Singapore.

“This step gives us greater confidence about the safety and security of Americans traveling to the DPRK, and will be one factor that we consider as we review travel requests by American representatives of humanitarian aid groups,” he said.

Washington’s announcement that it would review the sanctions and the travel ban is seen as part of its efforts to lead Pyongyang into negotiations amid the North’s continued silence about engaging in working-level, senior-level talks with the US.

The standoff in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington has become prolonged, with North Korea complaining about the US stepping up pressure against it.

Biegun is scheduled to hold a one-on-one meeting with Lee on Thursday and to lead a session of a South Korea-US working group Friday. The aim of the session is to better coordinate the allies’ North Korea policy.

It remains unknown whether Biegun will meet other South Korean officials. During his last visit, he met presidential chief of staff Im Jong-suk and presidential security adviser Chung Eui-yong.

The nuclear envoys are expected to discuss ways to break the impasse in North Korea-US denuclearization talks, as well as sanctions exemptions for a groundbreaking ceremony to reconnect and modernize cross-border railways and roads.

The two Koreas plan to hold the ceremony at Panmun Station in the North’s border town of Kaesong on Dec. 26, amid concerns that the project could undermine international sanctions imposed on the communist state.