Even as the rhetorical battle between the US and North Korea threatens to spiral out of control, a report by the Associated Press suggests that their diplomats are already quietly talking to each other.
It seems that the diplomatic contacts between the US and North Korea are happening at the UN headquarters in New York, where middle rank diplomats of the two countries have been quietly talking to each other for some months. Here is how Associated Press describes it
The contacts are occurring regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the process. They weren’t authorized to discuss the confidential exchanges and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials call it the “New York channel.” Yun is the only U.S. 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.
It seems that though the contacts have mainly focused on work to get US citizens detained in North Korea released, Yun and Pak also discuss the general state of US-North Korean relations.
Moreover it seems that though there have been sporadic diplomatic contacts at this level between the US and North Korea for some time, the dialogue has become far more sustained – developing practically to the level of a ‘backchannel” – since the Trump administration took office
Trump, in some ways, has been more flexible in his approach to North Korea than President Barack Obama. 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 Obama’s presidency after Pyongyang broke them off in anger over U.S. sanctions imposed on its leader, 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 U.S.-based group that promotes U.S.-North Korean engagement.
It is not difficult to see the influence of Rex Tillerson – President Trump’s realist Secretary of State – behind these moves.
The Yun-Pak dialogue is for the moment little more than an exchange of information. However if a decision is made to get talks properly started, it could serve as the vehicle to set them up.
A good precedent would be the channel Henry Kissinger opened to China with the help of Pakistani and Romanian diplomats in 1971, which led to Kissinger’s first secret trip to China and talks with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in July 1971. That eventually led to US President Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China in February 1972.
Kissinger’s contacts with China in 1971 had to be conducted in great secrecy because of the strong opposition to a normalisation of relations between the US and China which existed both in the US and China and also internationally. Indeed relations between the US and China at this time were so fraught that the first public sign of a diplomatic thaw between the two countries was the visit of a US table-tennis team to China in April 1971.
It is difficult to recall today the extent to which in the 1950s and 1960s relations between US and China were as tense as those between the US and North Korea are today. However the rhetoric used by the US and China about each other at that was every bit as tough as the rhetoric used by the US and North Korea about each other now.
Moreover the US during this period was also trying to overthrow of the Chinese government – and replace it with a pro-US ‘Chinese government’ it had in place in Taiwan – just as it was seeking regime change in North Korea until recently, especially during the period of the George W. Bush administration, and it also sought to enforce a worldwide economic blockade of China then, just it is trying to enforce a worldwide economic blockade of North Korea now.
In the event President Nixon went to Beijing and met with Mao Zedong – an individual as vilified then as Kim Jong-un is now – achieving what is still considered the greatest and most spectacularly successful stroke of diplomacy carried out by the US since the end of the Second World War.
North Korea is obviously not as important today as China was in the 1970s, though with the rapid advance of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme it is arguably more dangerous. However there is no reason for the secrecy which circumstances forced on Nixon and Kissinger in 1971. The entire world – apart from some recalcitrant politicians in the US, but including the governments of China, Russia, South Korea and Japan – would welcome US steps to normalise relations with North Korea.
If President Trump wants to secure his place his history he could do worse than copy the example of Kissinger and Nixon, and use the diplomatic channel available to him in New York – and the help offered to him by the Chinese and the Russians – to get himself an invitation to Pyongyang.