WASHINGTONA former U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights issues said Wednesday that humanitarian aid to the impoverished country should continue despite the threat of its nuclear weapons program.

Robert King, who served as the State Department envoy from 2009 to 2017, issued the appeal in a commentary for the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, where he is currently a senior adviser.

"For much of the past year, international attention on North Korea has focused on its aggressive nuclear and missile programs and how to engage with the North in ways that will reduce the risk of armed conflict and eliminate nuclear weapons," King wrote. "Humanitarian engagement, which was a major element in the U.S. and South Korean relations with North Korea two decades ago, has significantly declined in importance."

But the North's humanitarian situation remains dire, and addressing it will serve both moral and political purposes, he said.

It isn't just the "right thing," according to King, but providing humanitarian assistance will open channels of contact between North Koreans and citizens of other countries.

"This helps increase the flow of information about the outside world in one of the world's most isolated places," he wrote.

While there are various obstacles to sending aid to North Korea, including tightened United Nations Security Council sanctions over the regime's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, engaging the North on the issue could still lead to a solution, according to the former envoy.

"As the Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, I negotiated several times with North Korean officials in Pyongyang and Beijing in 2011 and 2012 to reach an agreement with the North on how we might satisfy U.S. legal requirements for assessing need and monitoring distribution of nutrition assistance for preschool children," he said. "The discussions were intense at times, but we reached an agreement that satisfied U.S. requirements but was also acceptable to the North Korean government."

Those plans were derailed after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power upon the death of his father and then leader, Kim Jong-il.

"I believe that we can -- and we should -- carry on humanitarian engagement with North Korea, and we can do so in a way that does not further its military capabilities and ambitions," King said. "There is a genuine and urgent need for this assistance. Furthermore, we can provide help to worthy and needy recipients, while our government and private efforts help to break down barriers between the United States and North Korea."

Source: Yonhap News Agency