President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that the United States and North Korea have begun direct talks with each other at “extremely high levels.” What’s more, it seems US officials are speaking to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un directly.
That’s big news: Trump and Kim are planning to meet for a historic summit in late May or early June — the first time sitting leaders of both countries would meet face to face. These new high-level talks are likely part of the planning effort ahead of that summit.
Trump, for one, seemed positive about the prospects of a meeting with Kim: “I really believe there’s a lot of goodwill. A lot of good things are happening,” he said alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is at Mar-a-Lago for a two-day summit with the president.
It’s unclear which officials from the US and North Korea are speaking with one another in these high-level talks. But Troy Stangarone, an expert at the Korea Economic Institute, suspects it might be senior intelligence officials.
“I assume he means on the intelligence side with the Reconnaissance General Bureau [a North Korean intelligence agency] involved in the planning,” he told me. “I would have to believe a senior official there is speaking to a senior CIA official. It’s believable with the two leaders set to meet.”
BREAKING: President Trump says direct, high-level talks with North Korea have begun ahead of Trump-Kim summit. pic.twitter.com/dyBEo8hWVI— NBC News (@NBCNews) April 17, 2018
Washington and Pyongyang already communicate with each other at times through the “New York Channel,” where US officials speak with North Korean officials posted at the United Nations. Both countries have used it to hash out important issues like the release of American prisoners from North Korea.
But direct talks at an “extremely high level,” as Trump says are now happening, are rare. That’s why it’s hard to know if the US and North Korea are actually speaking at a higher level than normal, or through an already established channel.
It’s also still possible a Trump-Kim summit doesn’t pan out. There’s a lot of time for things to go wrong, ranging from North Korea testing another missile to both sides disagreeing on where the summit should take place. Per Trump, the US and North Korea are considering five potential meetings sites, none of which are in the US.
Still, it’s encouraging if the two sides are chatting at the highest levels, especially since they spent all of 2017 seemingly headed for war.