26.02.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

USA-DPRK: Will Informal Negotiations Have Official Continuation?


Many articles of the author concern the confrontation of the DPRK and the USA. However, we should not forget that there plenty supporters of a dialogue with the DPRK in USA, and, though stealthily, some measures have been taken in this respect.

Perhaps, the readers remember that the first informal meeting of the USA and DPRK representatives took place on October 21-22, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur. Its result is still unknown. However, the next meeting took place in Geneva on November 17, 2016. The North Korean party was represented by the Deputy Permanent Representative of the DPRK to the UN Jang Il-hun and the Deputy Director of North America Department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry Choi Seung-hee. Professor Joel Wit of the Johns Hopkins University responsible for the operation of the Internet portal 38 North and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Robert Einhorn of Brookings University represented the USA.

Unlike the classic “second track” diplomacy when experts or retirees meet on both sides, this model can be called “one and a half” – the North was represented by officials, the United States – by retired diplomats and officials yet capable to convey the content of the consultations to the leadership. Meanwhile, official Washington may honestly declare that it “does not conduct any official negotiations with Pyongyang”.

Answering the question of the journalist concerning the aim of the visit, Jang Il-hun said that he could not give any commentaries. On March 13, 2017, Bloomberg referring to an interview with Joseph DiTrani, the US special envoy to the six-party talks, reported that the parties conducted such negotiations every six months.

On February 25, 2017, Radio Free Asia reported a possible meeting of the former US officials and the DPRK diplomatic officials in New York on March 1-2. However, the Department of State refused to issue an entry visa to the head of the delegation, Director of North America Department of the DPRK Foreign Affairs Ministry Choi Seung-hee.

The next informal negotiations took place on May 9, 2017 in Oslo. The North Korean delegation was led by Choi Seung-hee, the American – by Suzanne di Maggio, researcher and head of the brain trust of New America, an expert on Iran. Earlier, this woman participated in various backroom negotiations in order to create informal communication channels for the USA and some “troubled” countries, including Iran. The full list of the delegation participants was not disclosed officially. A source from Mengnews said that the above mentioned Robert Einhorn, ex-Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and other representatives of brain trusts participated in the meeting on behalf of the USA.

The dialogue was conducted as a top-secret, and according to the US Department of State, official Washington did not pay any special attention to these negotiations. The Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea also noted that did not consider such contacts as a part of the North Korean policy to establish relations with the USA in circumvention of the Republic of Korea.

However, these contacts are supposed to have become a platform to discuss the problem solving of the detained US citizens, including Otto Warmbier, conditions and opportunities to improve relations between Washington and Pyongyang, as well as the resumption of negotiations on the North Korean nuclear problem.

The media also reported that North Korea informed the USA that it would stop all the nuclear tests and missiles testing if Washington abolished the sanctions policy against North Korea and signed a bilateral peace treaty that would officially end the Korean War. This fact is confirmed by a statement of Choi Seung-hee on May 13: Pyongyang is ready to conduct a dialogue with the American party if the “required conditions” for it are former.

On August 12, 2017, Associated Press reported that Washington and Pyongyang had conducted secret negotiations on the fate of the arrested US citizens in the North. The contacts were brought about by the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun and an official of the DPRK Permanent Mission to the United Nations Park Song, while the entire channel was called “New York channel”. As a result of these contacts, the American student Otto Warmbier was released on June 13, 2017. As he was transferred to the United States already in a state of coma, and died a few days later, “contacts did not help relieve tension in the relations between Washington and Pyongyang.”

In September 2017, representatives of the DPRK Foreign Affairs Ministry participated in an informal conference on security in Zermatt (Switzerland) that took place on September 11-13 with the participation of the state agencies and NGOs representatives. It was organized by Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Switzerland. Experts from the Republic of Korea, the DPRK, the USA, China, Japan, and Russia attended it. The Deputy Director of North America Department of the DPRK Foreign Affairs Ministry Choi Gan-yl represented the DPRK. Commenting on the result of the communication, a representative of the Republic of Korea Foreign Affairs Ministry noted that nothing special had happened as the North repeated its previous position: the DPRK would not return to the negotiations table until the USA stopped its hostile policy.

September 30, 2017 was a more important date. During a visit to China, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted that the USA had “a very limited contact with the DPRK and recommended to “stay tuned.”

However, the next negotiations with the participation of Choi Seung-hee took place in Moscow on October 20-21, as a part of the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference – 2017. This is one of the major forums on the problems of weapons of mass destruction, arms control, and development of nuclear energy. The USA was represented by an impressive delegation: the former Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Robert Einhorn, a nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, and others.

As usual, the content of the dialogue was kept secret, and officially Choi Seung-hee announced that the format of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue was no longer valid. She underlined that the DPRK would not return to these talks until the disagreements with the USA were settled, and that the elimination of mutual opposition was possible if “the USA made the right choice”.

On October 22, 2017, in an interview to The New York Times, the ex-President of the USA Jimmy Carter told about an attempt to become an envoy to the DPRK to “help diffuse the growing tension”: in mid- 1990sCarter visited Pyongyang as an envoy of the President Bill Clinton and signed an agreement with the DPRK head Kim Il Sung on the recovery from the “first” nuclear crisis. According to Carter, he discussed a possible visit with Trump’s National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster, but it was denied.

On October 26, the Japanese television channel TBS citing informed sources, reported that the DPRK suddenly canceled the meeting of Choi Seung-hee with Joseph Yun, which was to be held in late October in Oslo. According to the TV channel, Pyongyang thus voiced its protest against the American military exercises on the Korean Peninsula area.

Nonetheless, on October 31, 2017, Reuters agency citing a source in the Department of State reported that Joseph Yun had contacts with the North Korean officials in the UNO using the above mentioned New York channel, while Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un exchanged harsh statements and threats.

On November 10, 2017, Rex Tillerson repeated that the USA kept three communication channels with the DPRK in the face of the appropriate time for negotiations. However, the Secretary of State immediately refuted the words of Joseph Yun on the possible restoration of contacts if the DPRK did not conduct provocative actions for at least 60 days. Tillerson noted that this matter had no certain terms, and this was perhaps the personal opinion of Joseph Yun. 

On December 22, 2017, it was reported that a special representative of Sweden on the Korean Peninsula issues Kent Hashtet visited the DPRK. He met with the Deputy Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Lee Soo-yeon, reported the Korean Central News Agency. Earlier, he conducted negotiations with the head of China’s delegation at the six-party talks Kuhn Xuanwu.

It should be noted that Sweden constantly renders humanitarian assistance to the North, conducts a number of joint projects in education and economy, while the Swedish Institute of Security Policy and Development conducted an informal forum in Stockholm with the participation of experts and representatives of the Republic of Korea, the USA, China, and the DPRK, which was represented by the staff of the Institute for Peace and Disarmament under the Foreign Affairs Ministry. In addition, its embassy in Pyongyang represents the US interests.

Backroom talks were expected at the Olympic Games in PyeongChang, but both the parties refuted the preparation to a dialogue. Though the meaning of such contacts should not be overestimated (let us discuss it when the “one and a half track” will become the “first”), this means that Washington is not cunning when saying that it has all the variants both the military and negotiation scenario.

However, while the “dialogue with Pyongyang” is understood as a recognition of Washington’s capitulating demands by the DPRK, the probability of turning the talks into something greater is not high.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.