Beyond bluster, US, North Korea hold back-channel talks
WASHINGTON — Beyond the bluster, the Trump administration has been quietly engaged in back-channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing Americans imprisoned in the communist country and deteriorating relations between the longtime foes, The Associated Press (AP) has learned.
It had been known the two sides had discussions to secure the June release of an American university student. But it wasn’t known until now that the contacts have continued, or that they have broached matters other than US detainees.
People familiar with the contacts say the interactions have done nothing thus far to quell tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile advances, which are now fueling fears of military confrontation.
But they say the behind-the-scenes discussions could still be a foundation for more serious negotiation, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, should US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put aside the bellicose rhetoric of recent days and endorse a dialogue.
The contacts are occurring regularly between Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song-il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s UN mission, according to US officials and others briefed on the process. They weren’t authorized to discuss the confidential exchanges and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials call it the “New York channel.” Yun is the only US diplomat in contact with any North Korean counterpart. The communications largely serve as a way to exchange messages, allowing Washington and Pyongyang to relay information.
Drowned out by the furor over Trump’s warning to North Korea of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed a willingness to entertain negotiations. His condition: Pyongyang stopping tests of missiles that can now potentially reach the US mainland.
Tillerson has even hinted at an ongoing back channel. “We have other means of communication open to them, to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk,” he said at an Asian security meeting in the Philippines this week.
The interactions could point to a level of pragmatism in the Trump administration’s approach to the North Korean threat, despite the president’s dire warnings.
On Friday, he tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.” But on Thursday, he said, “we’ll always consider negotiations,” even if they haven’t worked in the last quarter-century.
The contacts suggest Pyongyang, too, may be open to a negotiation even as it talks of launching missiles near the US territory of Guam. The North regularly threatens nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies.
The Department of State didn’t immediately comment on Yun’s diplomacy. The White House also had no comment. A diplomat at North Korea’s UN mission only confirmed use of diplomatic channel up to the release of US college student Otto Warmbier two months ago.
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