US provides first humanitarian aid to North Korea in five years

Posted on : 2017-01-25 17:04 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Provision of aid could be momentum to reset North Korea-US relations at outset of Trump administration
Former US President Barack Obama waves farewell at his last press conference
Former US President Barack Obama waves farewell at his last press conference

The US government has reportedly sent humanitarian aid earmarked for flood relief to North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province via the UN.

“Shortly before President Obama left office, the Obama administration sent humanitarian aid to North Korea by way of the UN, and the Trump administration is planning to make this public before long,” an expert on the Korean Peninsula in Washington who is familiar with affairs in the US government told the Hankyoreh on Jan. 24. This expert said that American aid to North Korea was at a “symbolic level” and did not mention the exact size or the items provided.

This is the first humanitarian aid the US government has given to North Korea since it gave US$900,000 through the independent relief organization Samaritan’s Purse in 2011. Even as the Obama administration toughened its independent sanctions against the North in response to North Korea’s fourth and fifth nuclear tests, it allowed humanitarian aid from the private sector but did not provide any governmental aid.

Considering that the Obama administration maintained a harsh policy of ignoring North Korea known as “strategic patience,” the fact that it played the card of governmental humanitarian aid through the UN just before Obama left office can be seen as a significant message to North Korea. The move provides the Trump administration, which is succeeding Obama, with a way to make unofficial contact with the North Koreans early on to explore resetting US relations with the North while giving Trump cover for the political fallout of providing humanitarian aid.

The fact that the Obama administration provided government-level humanitarian aid to North Korea through the UN just before Obama’s term ended looks very much like a “small present” to the incoming Trump administration. The Obama administration takes on the political burden of providing the humanitarian aid to the North, while the Trump administration only has to make the announcement.

Considering that the Obama administration even this year avowed putting sanctions and pressure on the North during high-level deliberations with South Korea shortly before the handover of power on Jan. 20, this decision can also be seen as an unexpected twist. The Trump administration has basically been given effective leverage to explore the possibility of resetting US-North Korea relations at the beginning of the Trump presidency.

When dealing with North Korea, humanitarian aid from the government is a way to send a friendly signal to the North without spending much domestic political capital. It’s a way to “prime the pump” and relax tensions that offers good “value for money.” While the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye completely severed inter-Korean relations and basically banned humanitarian aid from the private sector in response to North Korea’s two nuclear tests in 2016 (the fourth test on Jan. 6 and the fifth test on Sep. 9), the Obama administration has not closed the final “window of opportunity” that humanitarian aid represents.

The fact is that the Trump administration and the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un are still testing the waters. Trump did not mention North Korea during his inaugural address, and the six major policy goals announced by the White House only mention Iran and North Korea in the context of developing a cutting-edge missile defense system. Trump has yet to announce the framework of his North Korean policy or the specific methods of implementing that policy.

During his New Year’s address on Jan. 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un indulged in a little saber-rattling by claiming that “the preparations for a test launch of an ICBM are in their final stage.” Nevertheless, he has maintained a wait-and-see attitude for President Trump and the new American government by refraining from mentioning them so far.

That’s why the Korean Peninsula expert in Washington believes that the US government‘s humanitarian aid to North Korea, as “the first action to be taken,” could cause US-North Korea relations to move in a positive direction in the early days of the Trump administration.

“In order for South Korea to avoid being trapped between the US and China, it needs to negotiate with the Trump administration so that Trump will suspend efforts to deploy THAAD for now and so that he will eventually not feel the need to deploy it at all. That will require North and South Korea to hold off-the-record meetings toward that end and for North Korea to continue refraining [from taking military action],” the expert advised. If the Obama administration’s “last little gift” is to be used as a stepping stone to transforming the political situation on the Korean Peninsula, there needs to be wise response not only from North Korea and the US but also from the South Korean government, the expert said.

By Lee Je-hun, staff reporter

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