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North Korea taps GOP analysts to better understand Trump and his messages

September 26, 2017 at 1:03 PM

Spectators listen to a television news broadcast of a statement by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a public television screen in Pyongyang on Friday. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

BERN, Switzerland — North Korean government officials have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un's regime.

The outreach began before the current eruption of threats between the two leaders but probably will become more urgent as Trump and Kim have descended into name-calling that, many analysts worry, sharply increases the chances of potentially catastrophic misunderstandings. 

"Their number-one concern is Trump. They can't figure him out," said one person with direct knowledge of North Korea's approach of experts on Asia with Republican connections.

There is no suggestion that the North Koreans are interested in negotiations about their nuclear program, and the Trump administration has made clear it is not interested in talking right now. Intermediaries instead seem to want forums for insisting on being recognized as a nuclear state.

At a multilateral meeting in Switzerland earlier this month, North Korea's representatives were adamant about being recognized as a nuclear-weapons state and showed no willingness to even talk about denuclearization. 

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Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has advanced its ballistic missile and nuclear weapon technology at an unprecedented rate. Here are a few key tests under Kim Jong Un’s rule and the resulting U.N. Security Council sanctions. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

But to get a better understanding of American intentions, in the absence of official diplomatic talks with the U.S. government, North Korea's mission to the United Nations invited Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is now the Heritage Foundation's top expert on North Korea, to visit Pyongyang for meetings. 

Trump has close ties to Heritage, a conservative think tank that has influenced the president on everything from travel restrictions to defense spending, but no personal connection to Klingner.

"They're on a new binge of reaching out to American scholars and ex-officials," said Klingner, who declined the North Korean invitation. "While such meetings are useful, if the regime wants to send a clear message, it should reach out directly to the U.S. government."

North Korean intermediaries also have approached Douglas H. Paal, who served as an Asia expert on the National Security Council under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

They wanted Paal to arrange talks between North Korean officials and American experts with Republican ties in a neutral location such as Switzerland. He also declined the North Korean request. 

"The North Koreans are clearly eager to deliver a message. But I think they're only interested in getting some travel, in getting out of the country for a bit," Paal said. 

Related: [North Korea threatens to shoot down U.S. warplanes]

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Everyday, North Koreans are told that the Americans are "imperialists" and North Korean children are taught that "cunning American wolves" want to kill them. To understand why, we need to go back to the Korean War. (Anna Fifield, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

North Korea has about seven such invitations out to organizations that have hosted previous talks — a surprising number of requests for a country that is threatening to launch a nuclear strike on the United States.

Over the past two years in particular, Pyongyang has sent officials from its Foreign Ministry to hold meetings with Americans — usually former diplomats and think-tankers — in neutral places such as Geneva, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

They are referred to as "Track 1.5" talks because they are official (Track 1) on the North Korean side but unofficial (Track 2) on the American side, although the U.S. government is kept informed of the discussions.

But since Trump's election, the North Korean representatives have been predominantly interested in figuring out the unconventional president's strategy, according to almost a dozen people involved in the discussions. All spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the sensitive meetings.

Early in Trump's term, the North Koreans asked broad questions: Is the U.S. president serious about closing American military bases in South Korea and Japan, as he said on the campaign trail? Might he really send U.S. nuclear weapons back to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula?

Related: [Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ and calls Kim Jong Un ‘Rocket Man’ ]

But the questions since then have become more specific. Why, for instance, are Trump's top officials, notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, directly contradicting the president so often?

"The North Koreans are reaching out through various channels and through various counterparts," said Evans Revere, a former State Department official who dealt with North Korea and is a frequent participant in such talks. There are several theories about why North Korea is doing this.

"My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going, so they're trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington," Revere said. "They haven't seen the U.S. act like this before."

Revere attended a multilateral meeting with North Korean officials in the picturesque Swiss village of Glion earlier this month, together with Ralph A. Cossa, chairman of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and another frequent interlocutor with Pyongyang's representatives. 

The meeting is an annual event organized by the Geneva Center for Security Policy, a government-linked think tank. But it took on extra significance this year due to the sudden rise in tensions between North Korea and the United States. 

All countries involved in the now-defunct six-party denuclearization talks — the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas — were represented, as were Mongolia, Switzerland and the European Union. The Swiss invited the U.S. government to send an official, but it did not.

The North Koreans at the meeting displayed an "encyclopedic" knowledge of Trump's tweets, to the extent that they were able to quote them back to the Americans present.

Related: [Kim Jong Un calls Trump a ‘mentally deranged U.S. dotard’ ]

Pyongyang's delegation was headed by Choe Kang Il, deputy director of the Americas division in the Foreign Ministry. He was accompanied by three officials in their late 20s who wowed the other participants with their intellectual analysis and perfect American-accented English. One even explained to the other delegates how the U.S. Congress works.

"They were as self-confident as I've ever seen them," said Cossa. Revere added: "They may be puzzled about our intentions, but they have a very clear set of intentions of their own."

The participants declined to divulge the contents of the discussions, as they were off the record.

But others familiar with the talks said the North Koreans completely ruled out the "freeze-for-freeze" idea being promoted by China and Russia, in which Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear and missile activities if the United States stopped conducting military exercises in South Korea. The United States, Japan and South Korea also outright reject the idea.

Participants left the day-and-a-half-long meeting with little hope for any improvement anytime soon.

"I'm very pessimistic," said Shin Beom-chul, a North Korea expert at the South's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, after participating in the Glion meeting. "They want to keep their nuclear weapons, and they will only return to dialogue after the United States nullifies its 'hostile policy.' They want the U.S. to stop all military exercises and lift all sanctions on them."

Ken Jimbo, who teaches at Keio University in Japan and was also at the meeting, said North Korea may still be interested in dialogue but on terms that are unacceptable to the other side.

"North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear-weapons state," Jimbo said. "But when is North Korea ready for talks? This is what I kept asking the North Koreans: How much is enough?" 

Read more:

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Anna Fifield is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing, covering greater China. She was the Post's bureau chief in Tokyo between 2014 and 2018, writing about Japan and the two Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington, D.C., Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.

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