SEOUL, South Korea — The United States plans to review its ban on American travel to North Korea to help facilitate humanitarian aid shipments to the isolated country, Washington’s top envoy to the North said on Wednesday.
The remarks from Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, indicated that Washington was easing some of its “maximum” pressure on North Korea to break a prolonged stalemate in talks on denuclearizing the North.
North Korea has insisted that its negotiations with the United States will make no headway unless Washington first eases sanctions. It remained unclear whether the lifting of the travel ban and humanitarian aid deliveries will be enough for the North to make a major concession toward denuclearization.
“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,” Mr. Biegun told reporters at Incheon International Airport outside Seoul, according to Reuters. Mr. Biegun made the remarks after he arrived for four days of meetings with South Korean officials.
International aid groups have complained that Washington’s strict enforcement of sanctions against the North, including the travel ban imposed on American citizens last year, has hampered their operations in the country. North Korea is one of the world’s poorest nations, and many of its citizens suffer from chronic malnutrition and shortages of medical care.
The sanctions have been enforced so vigorously that aid groups have said that it has become nearly impossible to transfer cash for their daily operations in the North, or even take any metal objects, like shovels and water pumps, there.
Mr. Biegun’s comment came three days after North Korea warned that if the United States continued to escalate its sanctions and highlighted human rights issues in the country, it could “forever” shatter any chance of denuclearizing the North.
In Seoul, Mr. Biegun plans to meet with South Korean officials to coordinate the allies’ policies on North Korea, including the enforcement of sanctions.
South Korea has been eager to improve its ties with the North, and initiated an 18-day field study in recent weeks on the condition of North Korea’s rail systems. The two Koreas plan to hold a groundbreaking ceremony next Wednesday for a joint project to modernize and reconnect cross-border roads and railway tracks. The ceremony is to take place at Panmun Station just north of the western land border between the two countries.
The rail project is one of several collaborative projects that South Korea has championed to develop closer ties with the North and demonstrate the economic benefits the country could gain from giving up its nuclear weapons.
Whether any significant engineering work can take place will depend on progress in ridding the North of its nuclear arms. International sanctions imposed on the North over its weapons program forbid the kind of significant investment from the South that such infrastructure work would entail.
Washington has insisted that South Korea refrain from joint economic projects with the North until the country takes important steps toward denuclearization. The meeting Mr. Biegun will attend is expected to focus on ensuring that the inter-Korean project proceeds in a way that does not violate international sanctions.
The Trump administration enacted the travel ban on North Korea in September last year, after an American university student, Otto F. Warmbier, died as a result of brain damage suffered in a North Korean prison. Mr. Warmbier was arrested in 2016 while on a tour of Pyongyang.
The ban affected a dozen American nonprofit groups that work regularly in North Korea, although some aid workers have been able to get “special validation” to travel to the North, in the form of one-time-only passports issued by the State Department.
Washington has held fast to its policy of exerting “maximum” economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, even though President Trump has claimed progress in denuclearizing the North since meeting its leader, Kim Jong-un, in June in Singapore.
In the months following the Trump-Kim meeting, Washington has continued to crack down on companies, individuals and ships accused of engaging in banned activities like money laundering, cyberattacks and ship-to-ship transfers of fuel on North Korea’s behalf.
Since Mr. Kim met with Mr. Trump in June and committed to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” talks between the two sides have bogged down over who should take the first steps in carrying out the broadly worded Singapore agreement.
Washington is demanding a full declaration of the North’s nuclear assets for future inspections, but the North insists that Washington first lift sanctions before it takes steps toward denuclearizing.