Sun, Aug 13, 2017 - Page 5 News List

US, N Korea engage in backroom talks

‘NEW YORK CHANNEL’:Sources said Trump reopened a channel for negotiation between the enemy states that had been shut under the previous president soon after taking office


Beyond the bluster, US President Donald Trump’s administration has been quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing US citizens 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 US university student Otto Warmbier, but it was not known until now that the contacts have continued, or that they have broached matters other than US detainees.

People familiar with the contacts said 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.

However, they say the behind-the-scenes discussions could still be a foundation for more serious negotiation, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, should Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put aside the bellicose rhetoric of recent days and endorse a dialogue.

“We don’t want to talk about progress, we don’t want to talk about back channels,” Trump told reporters on Friday, revealing nothing.

The diplomatic 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, who were not 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,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed a willingness to entertain negotiations, on condition that Pyongyang stop 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 the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Manila last 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.”

However, later in the day, he said: “Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump. That I can tell you.”

The contacts suggest Pyongyang, too, might be open to a negotiation, even as it talks of launching missiles near the US territory of Guam.

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 former US president Obama’s presidency after Pyongyang broke them off in anger over US sanctions imposed on Kim. Obama made little effort to reopen lines of communication.

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

“Contrary to the public vitriol of the moment, the North Koreans were willing to reopen the New York channel following the election of President Trump and his administration signaled an openness to engage and ‘talk about talks,’” said Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a US-based group that promotes US-North Korea engagement.

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