U.S. unwavering on sanctions relief for North

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U.S. unwavering on sanctions relief for North

The U.S. State Department says more political and economic pressure should be applied on North Korea to force it toward a denuclearization settlement, while United Nations officials say sanctions relief is needed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Voice of America (VOA), a new State Department report submitted to Congress last week justified a budget request of $938 million for its activities in the East Asian and Pacific region.

A foremost priority for the department in the region is the campaign to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the report said.

“The goal of the president’s maximum pressure campaign is to increase diplomatic, economic and military pressure on North Korea to persuade it to a negotiated settlement leading to the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” read the report.

Designating Pyongyang as a “problematic” state that presented a direct and urgent threat to U.S. and global security due to its weapons of mass destruction, the department said around $74 million would be earmarked toward disrupting financial and material flows into the regime as part of the “Global Threat Reduction” initiative.

The report signals an unyielding stance from Washington on the question of sanctions on the North, which UN officials and experts through a series of public statements recommend be provisionally lifted to help public health efforts against the coronavirus.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, was the latest to call for economic sanctions relief for all countries in a statement to the VOA on Friday.

“I believe that economic sanctions on any country, regardless which one, should be lifted during the pandemic, no matter what the reasons are, and no matter how severe impacts on human rights violations are taking place,” she told the outlet.

“Economic sanctions have severe impacts on vulnerable citizens, rather than governments and decision makers. Therefore, it should be lifted to save innocent lives.”

The call follows an appeal from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who in an open letter to the Group of 20 industrialized powers late last month encouraged sanctions waivers for countries like North Korea to ensure their populations have access to food, essential health supplies and medical support.

“This is the time of solidarity not exclusion,” Guterres wrote. “Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.”

Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also recommended on March 24 that broad sectoral sanctions measures on countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Cuba be relaxed to ensure their health sectors can respond to the contagion.

In a press conference last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that while international sanctions would be maintained on the North and other adversaries, there was “no prohibition on moving humanitarian assistance into these difficult and challenging places.”

U.S. President Donald Trump too dispatched a letter last month to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un urging cooperation to fight the virus.

It remains unclear how much North Korea is affected by the new coronavirus, which has the potential to overwhelm its archaic health care system. Officially, the regime continues to deny it has any coronavirus infections in the country, with the head of its anti-epidemic headquarters telling the AFP last week that its efforts to fight the virus have so far been seamless.

Observers say this is unlikely. The commander of the U.S. forces in South Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams, told VOA that the intelligence he has reviewed so far makes the assertion that there have been zero infections in the country “an impossible claim.”

North Korea itself has been urging humanitarian relief groups around the world for aid items like diagnostic kits.

The regime, however, is due to hold a plenary session of its rubber stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, this week, in which it is expected to announce further measures to combat the pandemic.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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