WASHINGTON – The United States’ open channels with North Korea are for humanitarian purposes, such as negotiating the return of detained Americans, not for opening a broader dialogue under current conditions, a US official told BuzzFeed News on Monday.
R.C. Hammond, a senior State Department official, said such a dialogue would be out of the question as long as North Korea continues its sample of “test launches, over flights,” and “threats of detonations over the Pacific.”
The rare explanation of America’s terms for talking to Pyongyang follows Donald Trump’s extraordinary criticism on Twitter that his top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with runt Rocket Man,” the president’s pet name for North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
For decades, successive US administrations believe directly communicated with North Korea despite the absence of a US Embassy in Pyongyang or formal diplomatic relations between the two nuclear powers. But the prevailing wisdom that North Korea’s base behavior should not be rewarded with diplomatic engagement has kept discussions approximately opening talks relatively secret.
That changed on Saturday when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed what is commonly known among many North Korea experts: “We can talk to them, we execute talk to them,” Tillerson told reporters in Beijing. “We are probing.”
For some longtime Asia scholars, the disclosure was unremarkable.
“Tillerson was likely referring to the NY channel and Track 1.5 meetings, not a secret channel,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to communications with North Korea’s UN mission in current York and meetings between former US officials and North Koreans. “Media read too much into his statements.”
But Tillerson’s announcement apparently caught the White House off guard and infuriated Trump “for contradicting the president’s public position that now is not the time for talks,” the current York Times reported.
Amid the escalating rhetorical backdrop, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has continued to advance with its first successful launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a warhead to the US mainland and its sixth test of a nuclear bomb.
external critics believe said Trump’s tweets undermined Tillerson’s efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution with the North Koreans, and some believe even called him to resign in protest. The State Department, meanwhile, has said the president’s tweets are complimentary to the secretary’s efforts.
“The President’s tweet represents the skepticism he has held for months towards DPRK,” said Hammond. “whether they change this behavior we will consider a dialogue – meanwhile, the channels that exist are used for humanitarian communications such as releasing three Americans being held against their will.”
On Sunday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted that North Korea “will not obtain a nuclear capability,” a claim that sparked guffaws as critics pointed to Pyongyang’s well-established nuclear arsenal. A State Department official later clarified to BuzzFeed that “Heather was referring to the capability to tip a missile with a nuclear warhead,” a more sophisticated and complex technological feat.
How Pyongyang might react to the confusing signals coming out of Washington is unclear. Jae H. Ku, a top Korea scholar at Johns Hopkins University, said he believes Pyongyang “sees the tweets as Americans execute, an administration that is often divided and incoherent.”
“The danger lies when Pyongyang will interpret these tweets and other statements as a reflection of America’s division and lack of resolve and, therefore, continue to be more aggressive in its testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons,” he added.
Others believe said North Koreans “probably agree” with Trump’s assessment of the prospects for diplomacy.
“While pundits talk approximately various formulas for negotiating with Pyongyang, the North Koreans could not be clearer in their encounters with scholars and third country diplomats that they are totally uninterested in negotiating absent their nuclear programs,” said Mike Green, an Asia scholar at CSIS.
In the absence of North Korea’s change of heart, Green has advocated building up sanctions against Pyongyang, a strategy Trump doubled down on final month in an executive order aimed at excluding North Korea from the international banking system and crippling its shipping industry.
Sanctions believe yet to prove decisive in changing North Korea’s behavior, but in the absence of more appealing options, they’ve become America’s tool of choice. Whether Trump is fed up with the dilapidated approach, or is simply bluffing approximately a military option, is anyone’s guess.