WASHINGTON—U.S. officials are preventing American aid workers from making humanitarian trips to North Korea, according to people familiar with the matter, inhibiting the flow of food and medical assistance to the isolated country ahead of a new round of diplomacy over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
The decision was made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, two of these people said, part of an attempt to tighten the screws on North Korea in response to perceived foot-dragging on dismantling its nuclear program.
The State Department last year banned U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea, citing the risk of arrest and long-term detention, but allowed for humanitarian exemptions. The department had granted such requests since then from American citizens based in the U.S., South Korea and China.
In recent weeks, though, the department has rejected requests for specially validated passports from members of at least five aid groups operated by American citizens, according to two of these people, with no possibility of appeal.
A State Department official said that while special exemptions could be made “in the U.S. national interest,” the department ultimately had discretion to determine what met those criteria.
“That a group’s prior application was approved does not guarantee that a new application will be approved,” the official said. The official raised the possibility of “the diversion and misuse of humanitarian assistance by the DPRK regime for its weapons programs,” referring to North Korea by the acronym for its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The tighter travel restrictions come despite President Trump’s professed “love” for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who this week invited Pope Francis to Pyongyang as part of a continuing diplomatic outreach. Mr. Trump has indicated that he plans to meet Mr. Kim for a second time soon.
Diseases such as hepatitis, malaria and tuberculosis are endemic in North Korea, where many people suffer from malnutrition, poor sanitation and a lack of vaccinations and high-quality medical care.
Aid workers account for a large proportion of the few U.S. citizens who have traveled to North Korea in recent years. Most are members of Christian nonprofits such as Samaritan’s Purse, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee.
Christian Friends of Korea, a Black Mountain, N.C.-based nonprofit aid group founded in the wake of a famine that devastated North Korea in the 1990s, makes four trips a year to the country to dispense medical aid.
The nonprofit sought State Department approval in June for a September trip to North Korea for 11 U.S. citizens and had two of its applications rejected, said Heidi Linton, the group’s executive director. A subsequent application lodged in August for a November trip was denied entirely by the department last month, she said.
“We were planning to see new patients this time,” said Ms. Linton. “In some cases, if they don’t start treatment very soon, it may mean the difference between life and death.”
The United Nations World Food Programme said Tuesday that it is facing a 73% shortfall in funding for its North Korea operations this year, and called for more international contributions. It estimates that roughly 40% of North Korea’s 25 million people are undernourished.
Kee Park, a Harvard Medical School scholar and director of the North Korea program at the Korean American Medical Association who has traveled to North Korea to perform humanitarian surgery work, said Thursday that his application was denied in August.
Mr. Park called the State Department’s decision “arbitrary” and “inconsistent with the intent of exempting critical humanitarian assistance within the broader maximum pressure policy against DPRK.”
Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a Washington nonprofit organization that serves as an advocate for the various aid groups doing work in North Korea, lashed out at the denial of the visas. “It has become clear that the Trump administration regards the provision of humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people as a legitimate target for its maximum pressure campaign,” Mr. Luse said.
Tightening the flow of aid to North Korea may be a way of increasing U.S. leverage in a fresh round of bilateral talks aimed at breaking an impasse over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, said Joseph Yun, who until earlier this year was the U.S. special envoy on North Korea issues.
“They’re accumulating chips to give to them,” said Mr. Yun, who added that the waivers might be granted again as part of an agreed set of mutual concessions in the nuclear talks.
The development comes amid concerns that the U.S.-led campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea is showing signs of leakage. Seoul said this week that it is considering easing bilateral sanctions on North Korea.
Last month, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Russia of having “cheated” and “lied” to help North Korea evade economic sanctions, and of blocking the release of a U.N. investigative report detailing Russia’s actions.
The Treasury Department this month added more entities, including in Turkey and Russia, to a list of sanctioned groups.
The decision to block humanitarian aid trips comes after the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—a nonprofit group founded by Bill Gates and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, among others—said in February that it would end grants to North Korea.
North Korean state media described the group’s move as “extremely abnormal and inhumane.”
“It is timed with announcement of the ‘maximum pressure’ imposed on the DPRK by the U.S.,” North Korea’s vice minister of public health, Kim Hyong Hun, wrote in a letter to the Global Fund in March, according to Pyongyang’s state media.
Mr. Kim warned at the time about the possibility of an increase of thousands of tuberculosis patients, “which would eventually lead to a quick spread among children and other people.”
Seth Faison, a spokesman for the Geneva-based nonprofit, declined to comment on the North’s report but added that it hoped to resume grants to North Korea in the future.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at [email protected]