Secret diplomacy: US ex-officials, North Koreans quietly meet

In public, both sides regularly fire barbs at each other, but out of the limelight, former diplomats regularly sit down to meet Pyongyang’s top brass

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 10:55pm

Officially, the US and North Korea barely speak to each other, their communications often limited to public exchanges of insults.

The US ambassador in Seoul is “a villain, a crazy person”, a North Korean diplomat said. North Korea is a “wasteland” compared to South Korea, President Obama told the United Nations. But out of the limelight, and sometimes in secret, a small corps of former US diplomats and intelligence officials, often working with academic specialists, meet regularly with high-ranking North Koreans.

Sometimes, we can raise things that the US government isn’t able to
Leon Sigal, a former State Department policy official

They have sat down in Singapore, Berlin, Beijing and elsewhere to discuss everything from the details of North Korea’s nuclear programme to concerns about the effects of international trade sanctions on Pyongyang. They have talked about growing security fears in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo and about the timing of North Korean missile tests. If it’s not quite diplomacy, it sometimes gets pretty close.

“The North Koreans understand that we’re in no way representing the United States government. So sometimes, we can raise things that the US government isn’t able to,” said Leon Sigal, a former State Department policy official and long a key player in what are commonly called Track 2 talks. “I can say to them, ‘Hey, this is why the US government is doing this’. And then probe and say to them: ‘Look, what you’re doing is not going to work. How about this?’”

The two countries did quietly hold a series of discussions, apparently late last year, but those came to nothing. Since then, North Korea has staged two nuclear tests and a flurry of missile tests, building an increasingly sophisticated arsenal, but there have been no known direct communications between Washington and Pyongyang.

While Track 2 talks are common between rival countries – Indian academics, for instance, regularly meet with their Pakistani counterparts – the North Korean discussions are often seen as a key part of Washington-Pyongyang relations.

To critics, the Track 2 North Korea meetings are a waste of time. Or worse, they allow Pyongyang to claim the high road – insisting it’s seeking an avenue to peace – despite its years of cheating on past deals.

But John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that with communication between North Korea and the US almost non-existent, Track 2 talks have become a placeholder for government-to-government discussions. Informal talks are “a way for the North Koreans to send indirect messages”, he said, and try out ideas they may be hesitant to suggest in official channels.

While Track 2 participants are rarely formally debriefed by US officials, the substance of their talks is often widely shared among the small pool of experts – in government, academia and think tanks – who focus on North Korea.

That information can then be used once official talks restart. “There’s a lot that you pick up just by sitting in the same room,” ranging from what issues are open to discussion to group dynamics, Delury said. But what have Track 2 discussions achieved? That depends on who you ask.

To Sigal, the talks have revealed a North Korea willing to discuss limitations on its nuclear weapons programme, despite Pyongyang’s public insistence that it is now a nuclear power.

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Some other Track 2 participants, though, said they’ve seen no sign of North Korean willingness to discuss denuclearisation.

“During several meetings in recent months, I’ve raised the idea of a denuclearisation dialogue with the North Koreans,” Evans Revere, a former Asia specialist at the State Department, said. “The response from them has been quite definitive . ‘We are now a nuclear weapons state ... you must learn to live with and accept this new reality.’”

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Who is right? It’s hard to know. North Korea’s policy statements are rarely easy to interpret, with serious proposals sometimes buried inside bombastic propaganda, and experts regularly disagreeing about what message is intended.

“Most people in Washington have an assumption that the North Koreans are bad guys – which is true enough – but also that you can’t deal with them. I say that assumption is wrong,” Sigal said. “I think you have to be talking to them. And that’s the purpose of Track 2.”