Exclusive: U.S. pursues direct diplomacy
with North Korea despite Trump rejection
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[November 01, 2017]
By Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is
quietly pursuing direct diplomacy with North Korea, a senior State
Department official said on Tuesday, despite U.S. President Donald
Trump's public assertion that such talks are a waste of time.
Using the so-called "New York channel," Joseph Yun, U.S. negotiator with
North Korea, has been in contact with diplomats at Pyongyang's United
Nations mission, the official said, at a time when an exchange of
bellicose insults between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has
fueled fears of military conflict.
While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Oct. 17 said he would
continue "diplomatic efforts ... until the first bomb drops," the
official's comments were the clearest sign the United States was
directly discussing issues beyond the release of American prisoners,
despite Trump having dismissed direct talks as pointless.
There is no sign, however, that the behind-the-scenes communications
have improved a relationship vexed by North Korea's nuclear and missile
tests, the death of U.S. university student Otto Warmbier days after his
release by Pyongyang in June and the detention of three other Americans.
Word of quiet engagement with Pyongyang comes despite Trump's comments,
North Korea's weapons advances and suggestions by some U.S. and South
Korean officials that Yun's interactions with North Koreans had been
"It has not been limited at all, both (in) frequency and substance,"
said the senior State Department official.
Among the points that Yun has made to his North Korean interlocutors is
to "stop testing" nuclear bombs and missiles, the official said.
North Korea this year conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear
detonation and has test-fired a volley of missiles, including
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that, if perfected, could in
theory reach the United States mainland.
The possibility that Pyongyang may be closer to attaching a nuclear
warhead to an ICBM has alarmed the Trump administration, which in April
unveiled a policy of "maximum pressure and engagement" that has so far
failed to deter North Korea.
At the start of Trump's presidency, Yun's instructions were limited to
seeking the release of U.S. prisoners.
"It is (now) a broader mandate than that," said the State Department
official, declining, however, to address whether authority had been
given to discuss North Korea's nuclear and missile program.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China
welcomed any dialogue between the United States and North Korea.
"We encourage North Korea and the United States to carry out engagement
and dialogue," Hua told reporters, adding that she hoped talks could
help return the issue to a diplomatic track for resolution.
SANCTIONS AND ENGAGEMENT
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has urged all United Nations members to
fully and transparently implement sanctions against North Korea, which
he said has emerged as a global threat.
Speaking at the United Nations on Sept. 19, Trump vowed to "totally
destroy" North Korea if it threatened the United States or its allies,
raising anxieties about the possibility of military conflict.
[to top of second column]
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun (R)
answers questions from reporters following meeting with Japan and
South Korea chief nuclear negotiators to talk about North Korean
issues at the Iikura guest house in Tokyo, Japan April 25, 2017.
REUTERS/Toru Yamanaka/Pool/File Photo
Twelve days later, after Tillerson said Washington was probing for a
diplomatic opening, Trump said on Twitter that his chief diplomat
was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man" -
his mocking nickname for the North Korean leader.
Democratic U.S. senators introduced a bill on Tuesday they said
would prevent Trump from launching a nuclear first strike on North
Korea on his own, highlighting the issue days before the
Republican's first presidential trip to Asia.
A high-ranking North Korean defector said in Washington on Tuesday
that he backed the Trump administration's policy of pressuring
Pyongyang through sanctions, coupled with "maximum engagement" with
the leadership and increased efforts to get information into North
Korea to educate its people.
"I strongly believe in the use of soft power before taking any
military actions," Thae Yong Ho, chief of mission at Pyongyang's
embassy in London until he defected in 2016, told the Center for
Strategic and International Studies.
The New York channel is one of the few conduits the United States
has for communicating with North Korea, which has itself made clear
it has little interest in serious talks before it develops a
nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the continental United
The last high-level contact between Yun and the North Koreans was
when he traveled to North Korea in June to secure the release of
Warmbier, who died shortly after he returned home in a coma, the
State Department official said.
The Trump administration has demanded North Korea release three
other U.S. citizens: missionary Kim Dong Chul and academics Tony Kim
and Kim Hak Song.
Warmbier’s death was a factor in the chilling of U.S.-North Korean
contacts around that time but the biggest impact came from
Pyongyang’s stepped-up testing, the official said.
The official said, however, that "the preferred endpoint is not a
war but some kind of diplomatic settlement" and suggestions that
Washington is setting up a binary choice for Pyongyang to capitulate
diplomatically or military action were "misleading."
Diplomacy, the official said, "has a lot more room to go."
But Trump's threats against North Korea are believed to have
complicated diplomatic efforts.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick; additional
reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Clarence
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