Publicly, President Trump has been threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and boasting that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded.” Behind the scenes, though, his administration has been involved in covert communications with Pyongyang that could help resolve the crisis.
According to the Associated Press, Joseph Yun, the State Department envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior diplomat from North Korea’s United Nations embassy, have been in regular contact for months.
The US and North Korea don’t have formal diplomatic ties or any official lines of communication between their governments.
We already knew that there had been secret talks while the two countries negotiated the release of Otto Warmbier, the imprisoned American student who died days after his release from North Korea in June. But it wasn’t clear if they had continued talking, or if those discussions went beyond the fate of American detainees.
According to the AP report, they have. The backchannel communications, which began shortly after Trump’s negotiation, have carried on to the present day and could “be a foundation for more serious negotiation, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” according to the AP. The news service said the information came from current US government officials.
Yun and Pak are contacting each other through what’s known as the “New York channel,” which involves US diplomats talking with their counterparts from the North Korean mission to the UN. That channel has been largely closed down since July 2016, when the Obama administration sanctioned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a move that infuriated Pyongyang.
The Trump administration’s informal talks mark a pseudo-revival of that process, which is a vaguely reassuring development at a time when the leaders of the two countries are publicly threatening each other.
The secret talks could fall apart if tensions keep rising
Jenny Town, a Korea expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Yun and Pak are likely focusing on the fate of the three Americans still in North Korean hands. The diplomats are also likely talking about security concerns as tensions between the two countries rise.
Both countries likely hope that the informal communications could set the stage for formal diplomatic talks — something the Trump administration has said it would be interested in. The president told reporters at his golf club on Thursday, “We’ll always consider negotiations.”
But Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” this week could threaten those talks. When I asked Town if the New York channel could crumble once again due to Trump’s recent bellicose rhetoric, she replied, “Absolutely.”
“If the North Koreans don’t trust the Americans, it could hurt the [backchannel] process, and they could refuse to meet with [US envoy] Yun,” she told me.
Just as Obama’s sanctions against Kim caused the collapse of the New York channel last year, Trump’s combative rhetoric today could have the same effect this year. And that would mean the loss of a crucial tool for preventing a war of words between the two countries from escalating to something much worse.