The quiet diplo­macy be­hind all the blus­ter

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - MATTHEW PENNINGTON

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 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 U.S. 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 fu­elling fears of mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion.

But they say the be­hind-thescenes dis­cus­sions could still be a foun­da­tion for more se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tion, in­clud­ing on North Korea’s nu­clear weapons, should 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 U.S. en­voy for North Korea pol­icy, and Pak Song Il, a se­nior North Korean diplo­mat at the coun­try’s UN mis­sion, ac­cord­ing to U.S. 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 U.S. diplo­mat in con­tact with any North Korean coun­ter­part.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has ex­pressed a will­ing­ness to en­ter­tain ne­go­ti­a­tions. His con­di­tion: Py­ongyang stops test­ing mis­siles that can now po­ten­tially reach the U.S. main­land. He 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 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.

The con­tacts sug­gest Py­ongyang, too, may be open to a ne­go­ti­a­tion even as it talks of launch­ing mis­siles near the U.S. ter­ri­tory of Guam. The North reg­u­larly threat­ens nu­clear strikes on the U.S. and its al­lies. The State De­part­ment and White House had no com­ment. A diplo­mat at North Korea’s UN mis­sion only con­firmed use of diplo­matic chan­nel up to the re­lease of U.S. col­lege stu­dent Otto Warm­bier two months ago.

Trump, in some ways, has been more flex­i­ble in his ap­proach to North Korea than pres­i­dent Barack Obama. While vari­a­tions of the New York chan­nel have been used on-and-off for years by past ad­min­is­tra­tions, there were no dis­cus­sions over the last seven months of Obama’s pres­i­dency, af­ter Py­ongyang broke them off in anger over U.S. sanc­tions im­posed on its leader, Kim. Obama made lit­tle ef­fort to re­open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

The con­tacts quickly restarted af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions say.

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