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US-North Korea 'back-channel talks happening'

Julian Ryall Tokyo
October 3, 2017

The White House has once again rejected talks with North Korea. But Washington and Pyongyang have a backdoor diplomatic channel open, as Secretary of State Tillerson recently pointed out. Julian Ryall reports.

Trump and Kim Jong Un
Image: Reuters/K. Lamarque/KCNA

Despite the vicious threats and warnings that have been exchanged in recent weeks between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, the two governments appear to have at least a degree of dialogue - a development which analysts say is heartening.

On a visit to Beijing over the weekend, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Washington has channels through which it is able to communicate with Pyongyang and that it is not in "a dark situation, a blackout."

"We can talk to them," he told reporters in the Chinese capital. "We do talk to them."

Further details are scant, although that simple confirmation brought a sense of relief that the rhetoric of President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, might be merely posturing - although the president did appear to contradict his top foreign policy official on Sunday when he sent a tweet stating, "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man."

The White House said on Monday it was not the time to talk with Pyongyang, dampening Tillerson's efforts to explore the possibility of dialogue with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

"We've been clear that now is not the time to talk," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.

'Save your energy'

"Save your energy, Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" Trump added.

The president used his speech last month before the United Nations General Assembly to state that the US will "totally destroy" North Korea as it pushes ahead with its development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Read more: Why Trump won't 'totally destroy' North Korea

Kim hit back, accusing Trump of "mentally deranged behavior" and said the US leader was a "rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician."

While the leaders continue to trade insults, however, there is optimism that more rational players are communicating.

"We know that talks were going on quietly under President [Barack] Obama and I think it was assumed that they would continue under Trump despite what he might say," Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and head of South Korean intelligence, told DW.

"There are a number of channels; some government-level but most unofficial and between civic groups, although it must be pointed out that there is really no such thing as a civic group in North Korea and they are all directly linked to the regime," he said.

"These may be academics or similar groups, while the government-level talks - whatever stage they are at - will be handled by the State Department," he said.

Read more: China orders North Korean businesses to close in line with latest UN sanctions

Infografik Karte Major U.S. Military Bases Near North Korea ENG

'Unofficial talks'

The most promising encounter appears to be "unofficial" talks that are scheduled to take place in Oslo later this month, with former US government officials and experts on North Korean affairs due to meet with Choi Sun-hee, the head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's North American bureau.

Washington is hoping that Pyongyang might also send Han Song-ryol, the vice foreign minister, or Kim Kye-gwan, the first vice foreign minister.

Joseph Yun, the State Department's special representative for North Korean policy, met with Choi in Oslo in May to discuss the return of American nationals being held in North Korea. Pyongyang released student Otto Warmbier the following month, although he died within days of his return to the US.

Washington apparently hopes to use the Oslo talks to convince North Korea to freeze its nuclear and long-range missile programs. The ultimate aim, of a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, is not something that Pyongyang will negotiate and is therefore unlikely to be brought up, analysts said.

If North Korea is even considering freezing its weapons programs, it will demand significant concessions from the US and South Korea, including the halting of joint military exercises and a halt to demonstrations of the capabilities of the US military, such as flights by long-range strategic bombers and aircraft carrier battle groups.

Given the ideological gulf that divides the two sides, it is unlikely that these discussions will bear fruit, at least in the short term, and that alternative channels might prove more effective.

"I would expect those channels will include cultural and educational tracks as well as indirect contacts, such as through the embassies of Washington's allies in Pyongyang, such as Canada and the UK," Garren Mulloy, a defense expert and associate professor of international relations at Japan's Daito Bunka University, told DW.

And he points out that rhetoric and strong words are typical of virtually all inter-state negotiations, whether the subject be conflict or trade talks.

Rhetoric as public relations

"Autocratic and autocratic-like countries tend to use rhetoric like this on the public relations levels, largely for the sake of the media, while underneath relations can be moving forward," he said. "The hope in this situation is that beneath the insults, the experts on both sides are talking to each other and calming things down."

There is a difference this time around, however.

"The world is used to this kind of rhetoric from the North and it is usually simply ignored; we are not used to these sorts of comments from the leader of the free world," Mulloy said. "I think Kim understands that these comments are for public consumption, but I am not sure that Trump understands that."

Read more: German foreign minister praises US quest for dialogue with North Korea

Yet Mulloy remains an optimist that positive things could come out of meetings between the two antagonists or their proxies.

"I am optimistic that neither side wants to escalate the situation much further," he said. "North Korea likes to escalate because it forces people to talk to them and their strategic objective is to be recognized and engaged in conversation."

"And I think that what happens next will be very telling," he added. "Given Trump's comments, if the US does push ahead with dialogue then that would signal that Tillerson and James Mattis [the secretary of defense] are taking the lead on this. That would make me more optimistic that something can be achieved, although it would also indicate that they are reacting against Trump," he added.