Russia pushes UN to focus on N.Korea sanctions' toll

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R, pictured February 2019) said he would "seriously contemplate the interesting content" of US President Donald Trump's letter (AFP Photo/Saul LOEB)

The UN Security Council on Wednesday extended the work of a key panel that investigates North Korean sanctions-busting following weeks of negotiations over Russia's demands for a stronger focus on the humanitarian impact of the tough measures.

The council unanimously approved a US-drafted resolution renewing for a year the mandate of the panel of experts which reports to the UN sanctions committee on North Korea.

The approval had been held up by Russia which had requested that the panel be tasked with providing reports on the impact of sanctions on North Korea's humanitarian crisis, according to documents seen by AFP.

Russia wants the sanctions committee to grant more exemptions on humanitarian grounds, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told AFP.

"The indiscriminate application of the resolution prevents many things from happening in North Korea. UN organisations have difficulty working on the ground and we want exemptions," he said.

The United States rejected Russia's request to add a new task to the panel, but an agreement was reached to ask UN aid officials to brief the sanctions committee on the humanitarian situation every six months.

In a letter seen by AFP, the United States proposed that the sanctions committee "explore additional steps" to streamline requests for exemptions and help aid groups cut through UN administrative red tape.

- Food shortages -

Western diplomats accuse Russia of using humanitarian aid as a pretext to weaken the tough sanctions regime imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

A summit meeting in Vietnam between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended in failure in late February after Pyongyang demanded an easing of sanctions.

The United States maintains that Pyongyang's policies are responsible for the dire shortages of food and medicine in North Korea -- not sanctions.

Some 10.5 million North Koreans, or 41 percent of the population, are in need of food aid, according to UN figures.

So far this year, the sanctions committee has granted 18 exemptions to aid organizations working in North Korea, some of which had been under review for as long as a year, with the United States delaying approval.

UN sanctions resolutions specify that humanitarian aid should not be affected by the tough measures, but aid organizations have said they have been hit hard.

The restrictions have made imports of material for their relief projects almost impossible and created major headaches with banking, aid officials say.

North Korea in February told the United Nations it is facing a looming food crisis from an expected sharp drop in crop production this year and asked for help.