US diplomat worried about pandemic and food supply in North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The U.S. No.2 diplomat on Friday expressed sympathy for North Koreans facing the hardships and food shortages associated with the pandemic, and renewed his calls for the North to resume talks on its nuclear program.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently warned of a “tense” food situation and admitted that his country was facing “the worst crisis ever”. But his government has firmly insisted that it will not join the talks unless Washington renounces its hostility.

“We all feel for the people of the DPRK, who indeed face all of the most difficult circumstances given the pandemic, and what this also means for their food security,” said the Under Secretary of State. American Wendy Sherman to reporters in Seoul, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We only hope for a better result for the people of the DPRK,” she said.

Sherman spoke after a meeting with his South Korean officials, in which the two sides reaffirmed that they would continue their diplomatic efforts to convince North Korea to resume nuclear talks.

“We look forward to a reliable, predictable and constructive way forward with the DPRK,” Sherman said. “We have offered to sit down and have a dialogue with the North Koreans, and we are waiting to hear from them. “

Speaking alongside Sherman, South Korea’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong Kun said, “We will patiently await a North Korean response, as now is the time for coronaviruses.”

Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have made little headway since early 2019, when a second summit between Kim and then-President Donald Trump collapsed amid wrangling over U.S.-led economic sanctions. Kim has since threatened to boost his nuclear arsenal and build more sophisticated weapons unless the Americans lift their hostile policies, an apparent reference to sanctions.

Some experts say North Korea may be forced to reach out to the United States if its economic woes worsen. Outside watch groups have reported no signs of massive famine or social chaos in North Korea. In recent speeches, Kim called on its 26 million residents to prepare for protracted COVID-19 restrictions, saying the country was not ready to reopen its borders despite the heavy toll on its economy.

The South Korean spy agency told lawmakers this month that North Korea has not received any vaccine against the foreign coronavirus. COVAX, the UN-backed program to ship COVID-19 vaccines around the world, said in February that North Korea could receive 1.9 million doses in the first half of the year. But UNICEF, which buys and delivers vaccines on behalf of COVAX, said recently that North Korea had not even completed the paperwork to receive the vaccines and it was not clear when they could. be delivered.

After Seoul, Sherman will go to Mongolia then to China, the last great ally of the North and benefactor of aid. She will be the highest U.S. official to visit China since President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January.

During her visit to Tianjin in northeast China on Sunday, Sherman said she would discuss North Korea with Chinese officials, saying Beijing “certainly has interests and thinking” about it.

“The Biden administration has described our relationship with China as obviously complicated. It has aspects that are competitive, it has aspects where it is difficult and aspects where we can cooperate,” she said. And thinking together about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is certainly an area of ​​cooperation. ”

Choi said China is well aware that it can play “a very important role” in efforts to bring North Korea back to dialogue. He said Sherman’s trip to China would be “very meaningful” and that Seoul and Washington have a shared responsibility for Beijing to play its part.

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