The Trump administration has been pursuing backchannel talks with North Korea, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter, even as the president himself threatens to undermine such efforts with his off-the-cuff and inflammatory rhetoric toward the emerging nuclear power.
The two officials confirmed to POLITICO that the State Department has been involved in diplomatic communications with North Korea, with one official adding that the National Security Council staff had also explored backchannel discussions.
The Associated Press reported earlier on Friday that Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, has been in regular contact with Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s mission at the United Nations. The AP report indicated that the discussions had not eased fears of a military confrontation, but could prove a foundation for negotiations going forward.
Yun was known to have been in touch with North Korean counterparts to help secure the release of Otto Warmbier, an American imprisoned in North Korea. Warmbier was delivered to the U.S. in a coma, and he died a few days afterward. Still, according to the AP, Yun has kept up the contacts.
The news of the diplomatic effort, however, came as Trump continued to escalate his rhetoric toward North Korea, warning dictator Kim Jong Un on Friday that U.S. military is "locked and loaded" in case his regime acts "unwisely."
It was his latest broadside, after causing alarm worldwide on Tuesday by threatening that North Korea would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if the country did not stop provoking the United States. One White House official described the comment as “impromptu” and said other senior aides had no warning that Trump would make such an incendiary statement.
Former officials cautioned that Trump appeared to be undercutting the chances of any diplomatic effort.
The president’s public comments "undermine anyone in Pyongyang who’s interested in seeing if there’s something to be gained in a dialogue with the United States," said former State Department official Joel S. Wit, the founder of 38 North, a website that analyzes North Korea. “The hardliners in Washington reinforce the hardliners in Pyongyang, who in turn reinforce the hardliners in Washington."
Even as Trump continues to ratchet up his threats, Democrats are pushing the administration to give diplomacy a try. More than 60 Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives released a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday urging direct talks with the North Korean government. The letter was spearheaded by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a veteran of the Korean War.
“Trump must immediately cease talk of pre-emptive war — which must be authorized by Congress — and commit to the diplomatic path advocated by both American experts and the South Korean government,” Conyers said in comments accompanying the letter.
Separately, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. policy of isolating North Korea “has not worked.”
“The United States must quickly engage North Korea in a high-level dialogue without any preconditions,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “In my view, diplomacy is the only sound path forward.”
Asked earlier this week if any part of the administration is pursuing backchannel talks, a National Security Council spokesman told POLITICO: "We have always said that the door to dialogue with North Korea remains open, but North Korea must at the very least cease its provocative missile launches and nuclear tests as a first step towards a more constructive path of stability, security, and peace."
Tillerson, too, has in recent days hinted that he is open to dialogue with North Korea, even stating explicitly that the United States is not seeking regime change in Pyongyang. The regime in the impoverished, repressive country is believed to be pursuing greater nuclear and ballistic missile capability because it fears a U.S.-led overthrow.
"We’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond," Tillerson said on Aug. 1. "And we hope that at some point, they will begin to understand that and that we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea, but that will then promote economic prosperity throughout Northeast Asia."
What’s not entirely clear is exactly what sorts of conditions the North Koreans are willing to accept ahead of formal talks.
Tillerson has said there needs to be "an understanding that a condition of those talks is there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less to the homeland." While not suggesting North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before the talks begin, even the idea that it ultimately much give up such arms could be a non-starter for Pyongyang.
The Trump administration has done little outreach to Congress regarding its plans. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has had no member-level briefings this week. The administration also has not offered any briefings on the issue to the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to congressional sources.
The Trump administration is also not known for having a consistent voice on foreign policy, with the president frequently undermining Tillerson and other aides through his own remarks. Tillerson this week has offered a more moderate tone, telling reporters en route with him to the island of Guam that “Americans should sleep well at night” and that “I do not believe that there is any imminent threat” from North Korea.”
But Tillerson’s comments have done little to soothe Pyongyang. North Korea’s response to Trump’s rhetoric has been to threaten Guam, where the U.S. has a major military presence. North Korean state media have reported that military leaders are working on a plan to launch missiles into waters near the island.
The results of an all-out nuclear battle between the United States and North Korea could be catastrophic, with the potential death of hundreds of thousands, even millions, in a conflict that could draw in U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.
Analysts say it’s unlikely North Korea would launch a pre-emptive attack on the United States, knowing America would retaliate with a force that would wipe out the regime. But with Trump and others sending so many confusing, and at times aggressive messages, the risk of a misunderstanding or miscalculation that leads to a confrontation is higher than before, they added.
“I think Tillerson has the right approach,” said Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “And I think what he is saying between the lines is let’s have a dialogue but you have to freeze your missile act for a period of time – at least while we have the talks.”
“I have never felt the preemptive military strike is a realistic policy option,” added Richardson, who has traveled to North Korea on several humanitarian missions and served as an unofficial intermediary between the two nations.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a hawkish South Carolina Republican, said that even if the U.S. does want a diplomatic solution, North Korea wouldn’t agree if it felt the Americans looked weak.
"Without a credible threat of military force you’ll never end this through diplomacy," Graham told the WLTX 19 news channel on Thursday. "I’m hoping and praying that diplomacy works, and the only way that will work is if the North Koreans believe we’re serious about protecting our homeland."
There are some hopes that China, North Korea’s neighbor and largest trading partner, can step in and help defuse tensions. According to media reports, a Chinese state-owned news outlet, likely reflecting the Chinese government’s policy, warned Friday that Beijing would not come to Pyongyang’s aid if it attacks the U.S. first. However, if the U.S. launches a strike first, China will intervene, The Global Times said.