Tue, Nov 07, 2017 - Page 9 News List

‘He’s such a dreamer’: US envoy to N Korea’s one-man battle

When foreign service veteran Joseph Yun took the North Korean envoy job a year ago, he surely did not expect to be caught between two bellicose and stubborn factions

By Matt Spetalnick, Arshad Mohammed and Hyonhee Shin  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON and SEOUL

Saddled with the toughest job in US diplomacy, the chief US negotiator with North Korea stands between a president who insists he does not want to talk and an enemy who shows no interest in listening.

While veteran US Department of State Asia hand Joseph Yun might be Washington’s best diplomatic hope for reducing the risk of a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula, he serves an administration riven by divisions over how to handle Pyongyang.

On the other side, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shows little interest in negotiating either, at least not until he has developed a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland.

Despite the daunting obstacles, South Korean-born Yun has told colleagues and others he hopes his diplomatic efforts can lower the temperature in a dangerous nuclear stand-off, according to Reuters interviews with more than a dozen current and former US officials and South Korean diplomats.

Most were deeply skeptical about his chances.

“He’s such a dreamer,” a White House official said, with a note of sarcasm.

“We don’t think this is going anywhere,” another US official said, although he added it was still worthwhile to keep engaging at some level with the North Koreans as long as Yun does not appear to be undermining US President Donald Trump’s public rejection of direct negotiations.

Trump has told aides that his military threats will drive North Korea to capitulate and rein in its nuclear and missile programs, four White House officials said, a view not shared among most US intelligence agencies.

However, Yun is quietly pursuing direct diplomacy with North Korean officials at the UN and has a mandate to discuss issues beyond the release of US citizens, a senior State Department official said last week.

In June, he secured the release of US student Otto Warmbier, who returned to the US in a coma and died days later.

Trump on Friday headed to Asia as a senior aide said the world is “running out of time” on the North Korea crisis. Behind the scenes, Yun is trying to keep open a fragile line of communication that could be used to prevent any miscalculation by one side or the other from spiraling into military conflict.

Further aggravating tensions, two US strategic bombers on Thursday conducted drills over South Korea. That followed word from South Korea’s spy agency that North Korea might be preparing another missile launch.

US officials have said privately that intercepting a test missile is among options under consideration, although there is disagreement within the administration about the risks.

In the midst of this is Yun, a soft-spoken, 32-year foreign service veteran who took on the job a year ago, near the end of the administration of former US president Barack Obama.

He is grappling with Trump’s strident rhetoric as well as disagreement among the president’s top aides over whether saber-rattling would force Kim to capitulate and what the threshold for any military actions should be, said several US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Concern about Yun’s difficulties has surfaced in Seoul, where he visits regularly and where Trump is to arrive today on the second stop of his Asian tour.

Several South Korean officials expressed worry that Yun’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea lack any real underpinning of support from the White House.

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