Signs of warming ties are appearing ahead of a crucial summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump.
The UN Security Council, which oversees sanctions on North Korea, has been quietly easing sanctions on some humanitarian goods entering the country, including computers, vehicles, generators and medical equipment.
Waivers were permitted in October and November 2018 and on January 18 this year. North Korea suffers from widespread poverty, malnutrition and a lack of medicine and medical facilities.
Meanwhile, working-level talks between officials from both nations, as well as from South Korea, which were held in an undisclosed location near the Swedish capital of Stockholm, wrapped up on Monday.
Trump has said the summit will take place in late February. No location has yet been disclosed, but Vietnam is being seen as the most likely site.
One expert sees the opening of the long-delayed working-level channel as reciprocity for the sanctions waivers.
Sanctions eased – a fraction
The UN Security Council has quietly permitted a slight easing of the sanctions regime on North Korea, according to data on its Sanctions Committee website.
The exemptions are four charities including UNICEF, which runs anti-malaria, anti-tuberculosis and immunization programs in North Korea, and for the Eugene Bell Foundation, which works on tuberculosis programs in North Korea.
For the Eugene Bell Foundation, the latest exemptions, effective January 18, include microphones, loudspeakers and stationary. For UNICEF, the list of sanction-exempted materials as of January 18 included computers, LED screens, TVs, generators, solar panels, nine ambulances, vehicle parts, roofing materials, plumbing equipment and office equipment.
Also as of January 18, humanitarian sanctions exemptions were granted to Canadian NGO First Steps Health Society, for soymilk containers for vulnerable populations, and for Christian Friends of North Korea, for tuberculosis, hepatitis and pediatric patients.
However, a full list of items permitted for those two groups was not detailed on the UNSC Sanctions Committee website.
Both the Eugene Bell Foundation and UNICEF had earlier received UNSC sanctions waivers, in November and October 2018, respectively. The Eugene Bell Foundation exemptions were for an extensive list of foodstuffs, medical chemicals, medical equipment and medications.
The UNICEF sanctions exemption list was also extensive and included a refrigerated truck and a wide range of hospital equipment, including X-ray machines and microscopes.
UN sanctions on North Korea have largely been promoted by the United States. North Korea has demanded an easing of sanctions as a quid pro quo for denuclearization, something Washington has refused. As one of the five permanent members of the UNSC, Washington could have – but did not – use its veto to prevent the measures.
“I think these are actually quite substantial exemptions because it had been forbidden for a long time to provide North Korea with aid of any kind – X-rays, computers or LED screens – as they were under a general ban,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul’s Asan Institute, a think tank. “It kind of indicates which direction US concession are headed.”
China and Russia have both said they support eased sanctions on North Korea, the most heavily sanctions nation on earth. But France, the UK and the US maintain the position that pressure must be maintained on North Korea, pending denuclearization.
South Korea, which roughly falls in line with its only ally, the United States, but which also seeks economic engagement with North Korea, has also proposed partial easing of sanctions.
New negotiating channel opens
Those attending the talks in Sweden, which took place over the weekend and ended Monday, included North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and South Korean negotiator Lee Do-hoon.
It was the first time Choe and Biegun are believed to have met. Their discussions were apparently wide-ranging.
“Constructive talks have been held covering issues concerning developments on the Korean peninsula, including confidence building, economic development and long-term engagement,” a spokesman from Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said, according to Reuters.
Substantive talks to not only discuss the location for the upcoming summit, but also its agenda, look to be essential. While the 2018 Kim-Trump summit resulted in a general agreement, experts expect the next summit to include more concrete commitments.
The Sweden meeting could have been prodded by the movement on sanctions, one expert said.
“The fact that Biegun and Choi finally met is a concession on behalf of North Korea, as for a long time [North Korea] did not allow that meeting to happen,” said Asan’s Go. “I would not call it a taste of what is going to come, but with the US allowing cutting-edge technological goods to go in, that could excite the North Koreans a little bit.”
The Sweden talks appear to have been timed with the meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea’s de facto chief emissary in the United States last Friday.
The opening of lower-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington would appear to be a good sign. Last year’s Kim-Pompeo talks, which followed the historic first North Korea-US summit in Singapore in June, generated little or no traction on improving bilateral relations or advancing North Korean denuclearization.
Sweden, a nation with a long neutrality tradition, maintains an active embassy in Pyongyang. Customarily, when US citizens face legal issues in North Korea, the Swedish Embassy has acted as a communications channel.
Lacking diplomatic relations, North Korea and the US have utilized a range of public and not-so-public communications channels for decades.
These include the “New York channel” which utilizes the North Korean mission to the UN; “Track 1.5” talks between ex-US officials and serving North Korean officials; and secret talks between the intelligence agencies of the two countries, which have occasionally come to light.