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Opinion Inside the ‘New York Channel’ between the United States and North Korea

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a television news program in Seoul on Aug. 10. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

For many years, the North Korean mission at the United Nations has provided a quiet avenue of communication for Washington and Pyongyang, away from the eyes of the media and irrespective of the bombast and rhetoric coming from the leaders of both countries. In the coming weeks, it could have new importance as the one place the two countries can talk directly — to avoid military conflict.

As the current crisis deepens, the “New York Channel,” as it is known, is alive and well. Late last month, State Department official Joseph Yun and Pak Song Il, a top North Korean official at the United Nations, met in New York to discuss the fate of three American prisoners held by the Kim Jong Un regime, according to three sources briefed on the meeting. The Associated Press reported today that Yun and Pak have been using the channel regularly since President Trump’s inauguration to discuss the prisoners primarily, but also the overall U.S.-North Korea relationship.

My sources tell me that in July, Yun and Pak were also involved in planning what was to be the most extensive contact between senior North Korean officials and Americans since Trump’s inauguration. Pyongyang was ready to send a high-level delegation to New York to meet with senior U.S. experts on North Korea and former officials for a “track two” set of discussions in late August.

The meetings were to be hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a small but influential think tank that has a long history of arranging such private interactions. The North Korean delegation was to be led by Choe Son Hui, deputy director general of the North Korean foreign ministry’s U.S. affairs department.

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Some involved speculated that Yun would “unofficially” get a chance to meet with Choe while she was in town. If so, it would have been the U.S. government’s best chance to talk directly with a North Korean official who has more ability to negotiate than the lower-level U.N. diplomats do.

But the planning was canceled last month because the two sides could not come to terms. The U.S. side wanted North Korea to show some progress on the issue of the American prisoners before granting the high-level North Korean delegation visas to enter the United States. The North Korean side didn’t meet that condition. It was the second failed attempt; the think tank had previously tried to arrange the visit in March.

Only a few days after Yun and Park last met, the war of words between the Kim regime and President Trump erupted, with threats of military action coming from both sides. Theirs was the last direct contact between the two governments, sources confirmed.

The prisoner issue has been a precondition for negotiations on the Trump administration’s side since February. There’s evidence it could be where the two sides eventually break the ice. Yun used the New York Channel to arrange the release of Otto Warmbier in June, who died days after returning home.

Just this week, North Korea released a Canadian pastor they had imprisoned, after months of negotiations with the Canadian government. Some experts saw that as a signal from Pyongyang to Washington.

“The Canadians have sent people, a couple of times, government people, to talk to the North Koreans. We haven’t. And so, as far as the North Koreans are concerned, the Canadians are playing ball,” said Robert Carlin, a former State Department official who dealt extensively with North Korea. “It also is a demonstration to the Americans that by being tough and uncommunicative — in their view — it doesn’t benefit our own prisoners.”

Despite the differences in tone and tenor between what different U.S. officials are saying about North Korea in public, the messaging in private has been relatively consistent. The Trump team has told foreign interlocutors that they remain open to negotiations with Pyongyang under the right conditions but will meanwhile continue to increase pressure on the regime.

The conditions for talks are fairly straightforward and well understood. North Korea must freeze its nuclear and missile tests and agree to include the topic of eventual denuclearization in the agenda. The United States is not prepared to meet China’s proposed condition, a freeze on joint exercises near the Korean Peninsula.

Those exercises will kick into high gear later this month, and North Korea may unleash a provocation in that time frame as well. If and when that happens, Kim and Trump’s brinksmanship will be put to the test.

Even if the two sides can’t agree on terms for negotiating an end to the conflict, the New York Channel could be the best way to facilitate the communication needed in an emergency to avoid a miscalculation that could lead to war.