Future US back-channel diplomacy with North Korea may depend on condition of American student Otto Warmbier

First high-level encounters between the two governments could be significant, at a moment when the countries have been trading threats and readying military forces for a possible confrontation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 8:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 11:07pm

Not long after US President Donald Trump declared last month that he would be “honoured” to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un amid mounting nuclear tensions, a secret encounter took place in Oslo between officials from the two countries.

Joseph Yun, the US special representative to North Korea, had persuaded his boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to bless the rare, face-to-face dialogue with senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials after assuring him that the agenda would focus on the status of four American citizens imprisoned by the Kim regime, according to people familiar with the process.

Yun scored a breakthrough when the North Korean delegation agreed to allow Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang, who handle US affairs there, to visit the American prisoners, including 22-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier.

Watch: US student hospitalised after return from North Korea

Ultimately, North Korea allowed only one visit, with a different prisoner. As the administration continued to push, Pyongyang urgently requested to see Yun at the United Nations in New York. A June 6 meeting led a week later to Warmbier’s sudden release Tuesday after 17 months of captivity. He was medically evacuated in a coma; the other three Americans remain in captivity.

The news surfaced after the flamboyant retired NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman - a former contestant on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice reality show - flew to Pyongyang to resume his quixotic quest to broker detente between his US homeland and Kim’s authoritarian regime.

But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the visit “had nothing to do with the release”.

Warmbier’s parents were told their son had contracted botulism and was given a sleeping pill soon after his trial in March last year and never woke.

The New York Times reported a senior US official as saying the authorities recently received intelligence indicating Warmbier was repeatedly beaten while in custody.

Whether the back-channel diplomacy will lead to broader talks with North Korea may depend on Warmbier’s condition, and White House officials declined to comment on the geopolitical implications of his case.

But the first high-level encounters between the two governments could be significant, at a moment when the countries have been trading threats and readying military forces for a possible confrontation.

Even as North Korea has been escalating its ballistic missile launches and warning of a new nuclear test, Kim continued the so-called “Track 2” dialogue in which former US officials and nuclear experts meet regularly with North Korean counterparts. The dialogue is regularly scheduled, but not official - until Oslo.

North Korea sent high-level Foreign Ministry officials to Oslo specifically to meet with Yun.

A State Department spokeswoman suggested it was too soon to predict a deepening of engagement with Pyongyang.

“This is all so fresh,” the spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, told reporters in Washington.

“We were just able to get the release of Mr Warmbier. We are grateful and thankful for that. He is on his way home. I think it’s just too soon to say what that dialogue is going to look like.”

US diplomats, members of Congress and North Korea experts also were hesitant to declare a new chapter in bilateral relations. Several suggested that Kim’s calculus was based less on a bid to continue dialogue with the Trump administration than a fear that all avenues of engagement would be shut down if Warmbier were to die.

“For all of Kim Jong-un’s bravado and his flaunting of the threat of nuclear-armed missiles, he really, really does not want an American citizen to perish under his custody,” said Danny Russel, a State Department official on sabbatical who served as senior Asia director at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

But Russel acknowledged that a secondary intent of Warmbier’s release “could be a form of diplomatic signalling, the functional equivalent to a lady dropping her handkerchief to see if the gentleman picks it up. . . . Does this go anywhere?”

A congressional aide familiar with the process said Tillerson was adamant that Yun participate in the meetings only under the precondition that the Americans who were detained be the focus of the agenda and that a pathway was laid out for their release.

“It was not for broader diplomacy or engagement,” said the aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

But the aide added: “You now have a channel with a senior administration official and a North Korean official with some degree of confidence. I wouldn’t use the word trust, but confidence. Does this lead to anything bigger? Not necessarily. But this sort of engagement is a necessary precondition to have serious discussions.”

Direct, formal talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been on ice since North Korea dropped a proposal in early 2016 to engage in formal peace talks with the Obama administration to officially end the Korean war. The breakdown occurred when Pyongyang refused to include its nuclear programme on the agenda.

“I don’t think this administration is ideologically opposed to talking with North Korea,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies who served as senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.

But Cha emphasised that the political fallout in Washington over Warmbier’s case could reflect negatively on Pyongyang because of the student’s dire health.

“I have a feeling this will not be seen positively but will be seen negatively,” Cha said.

“For medical reasons, they had to get him out. Overall, it might have been meant to spur diplomacy, but I don’t know if that will be the case because of his poor condition.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse