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The US wants to set up a liaison office in North Korea

This would be one of the biggest diplomatic achievements between the US and North Korea in decades.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks after watching the gymnastic and artistic performance at the May Day Stadium on September 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks after watching the gymnastic and artistic performance at the May Day Stadium on September 19, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Pyongyang Press Corps-Pool/Getty Images

The US is considering setting up a diplomatic office in North Korea — a symbolic move that could show how relations between Washington and Pyongyang have seriously begun to thaw.

According to a top US official, the Trump administration wants a senior diplomat in North Korea to set up a liaison office, which would serve as America’s quasi-embassy but with very stripped-down functions. The hope is that Pyongyang, in return, would send its own envoys to the US. If that happens, it would be the first major step toward reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two nations.

However, the official told me the US is “not sure if the North is interested. Guess it will depend on the overall deal” that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might strike when they meet in Vietnam later this month.

The development, which CNN first reported on Monday morning, isn’t entirely new. The US and North Korea have tried to set up liaison offices since 1992, experts say. They actually agreed to an exchange in 1994, but North Korea reneged on the deal later that year after it shot down an American helicopter traveling over the demilitarized zone.

The Trump administration’s apparent hope is that closer ties between Washington and Pyongyang will end the decades of hostility between them. But North Korea experts wildly disagree on whether or not the plan will work — and even on how significant the news is.

“Given the stated goal of new US-DPRK relationship at the Singapore Summit, this is a small, initial step,” the Atlantic Council think tank’s Robert Manning tweeted, using an acronym for North Korea and referring to Trump and Kim’s first meeting last June. That’s where both leaders affirmed in a joint declaration “to establish new US-DPRK relations.”

“It’s important that we’re actually talking about opening a liaison office,” the Stimson Center think tank’s David Kim told me. “With the momentum and incentives from both sides to make concrete steps toward peace ... it would be a strong gesture that we want to continue peace talks at all levels.”

At this point, it’s unclear what a US liaison office in North Korea might look like. In 1994, there was talk of putting US officials in the Germany embassy in Pyongyang. Today, British and Swedish diplomats — who convey American messages to North Korean officials — sit alongside their German counterparts in that facility. That means there’s likely little space for Americans to work.

Still, any effort to build trust between the US and North Korea could help prevent both nations from threatening nuclear war. And they’re certainly less likely to launch bombs if some of their diplomats are near potential targets in Washington or Pyongyang.

The question now, though, is if Trump and Kim will actually reach a deal in Vietnam on February 27 and 28, which is an important preliminary step. That will only add to the complexity in reaching an ultimate peace agreement.