But the importance of the New York channel has been noticeably diminished over the years, according to diplomats. Today, with the United States and North Korea at a standoff and the threat of a fourth nuclear test by the North looming, Han’s channel has been reduced to a diplomatic P.O. box that passes occasional messages between capitals and arranges travel for VIP visits to Pyongyang.
The shift, diplomats and others say, underscores the radicalization of North Korea’s foreign policy and a growing pessimism that relations can be improved.
“These people in New York are not authorized to say anything or do anything — they don’t have the authority to deviate from specific instructions,” said Han Park, a professor at the University of Georgia with long-standing ties to the North Korean government.
The diminished status of the New York channel also speaks to the waning influence of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, which oversees the conduit, in shaping the country’s relationship with the United States. For its part, the Obama administration has shown little interest in cultivating the channel more assiduously, on the grounds that Han Song Ryol and his colleagues have little influence back home and little authority to advance relations, according to diplomats and former U.S. officials.
In the absence of a more substantive diplomatic channel, tensions between North Korea and the United States have mounted in recent weeks, with Pyongyang issuing a series of increasingly provocative threats. To persuade North Korea to change course, the United States has relied on economic pressure, including a new round of U.N. sanctions, and hopes that China can use its leverage to convince Pyongyang that it should stand down.
Some North Korea watchers say the New York channel remains important, particularly at a time when the North, which recently severed its few lines of communication with the South, has moved to further isolate itself.
“It serves only as a communications channel, although messages can be and have been sent between the highest levels of the two governments,” said Kun A. “Tony” Namkung, who maintains close contacts with the mission and who helped arrange recent visits to Pyongyang by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google chief executive Eric Schmidt.
“It remains wide open and is in good shape. Given the recent cutting off of the military hotline at the DMZ, its importance has actually increased,” he added, referring to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Han, who did not respond to requests for an interview, first arrived in New York in the early 1990s and served nearly five years as a young counselor, initially as an aide to the North Korean mission’s top ambassador.
During the Clinton era, the New York channel served various functions, according to Evans Revere, who was a senior State Department official at the time and functioned as the Washington end of the New York channel. It was, Revere said, a “sounding board and exploratory vehicle” for resolving differences between North Korea and the United States; the “eyes and ears” of Pyongyang in the United States; and “the voice of the regime” for American audiences.
In 2002, after a hiatus from the mission, Han returned to New York, where he served two stints as the envoy responsible for U.S. relations, the first of which ended after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, in 2006. Over the past few years, the New York channel’s role, however, has been limited.
“One has to wonder whether and to what degree the channel is able to report back fully and frankly on developments in the United States, and also the extent to which the leadership in Pyongyang is actually listening to what the channel is reporting,” Revere said.
A portrait of Han emerges in the book “Eating With the Enemy,” by Robert Egan, a New Jersey restaurant owner and POW advocate who befriended the North Korean diplomat. Acting as an informal fixer, Egan took Han and his colleagues fishing and pheasant hunting, and to New York Giants and New Jersey Nets games.
In Egan’s telling, Han revealed himself as a former North Korean soldier who professed admiration for billionaire developer Donald Trump, passed on a proposal through Egan to sell North Korean nuclear weapons for billions in cash, and once tried to help Egan negotiate the return of the USS Pueblo, a naval intelligence vessel that was captured by the North Koreans in 1968. When the book was published, Han exploded with anger, telling Egan that the revelations could serve as a “death sentence” back home, the author recalled in an interview.
Since then, Egan said, he has had relatively little contact with the North Korean mission. As for Han, U.S. officials and other North Korea watchers say that he has maintained his position as Pyongyang’s key link with American officials but that he has become far more cautious.
Diplomats close to Han say that his latest posting will end soon and that he is likely to depart New York in the summer, with little to show for his efforts.
“I have found him and his colleagues to be lacking in ideas and ambitions, and I think that is a reflection of their assessment of the overall state of affairs — that things are not good and not going to get better anytime soon,” said a former senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to offend Han.
“They are lacking a level of energy and enthusiasm that I have seen them manifest in the past. They really are at the end of the trail here in New York, and Pyongyang is a long way away.”