The Trump administration acknowledged on Saturday for the first time that it is in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.
According to NY Times, Tillerson said during a trip to China, “We have lines of communications to Pyongyang.” He added, “We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”
He would not say if the North Koreans had responded, beyond the exchange of threats that, in the past week, have included declarations that the country might conduct an atmospheric nuclear test and that it had the right to shoot down American warplanes in international waters.
“We can talk to them,” Tillerson said. “We do talk to them.” When asked whether those channels ran through China, he shook his head. “Directly,” he said. “We have our own channels.”
North Korea and the US have engaged in heated rhetoric in recent months but it was not previously known they had lines of communication.
President Donald Trump has threatened to annihilate North Korea, saying the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, “is on a suicide mission,” which led Kim Jong Un to release a statement vowing to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
The war of words comes against a backdrop of repeated missile tests and Pyongyang’s claim that, in early September, it successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen bomb which could be loaded on to a long-range missile.
The tests were internationally condemned, with the UN bringing in sanctions against North Korea in an attempt to force the secretive state to stop its weapons program.
Tillerson is in China meeting with President Xi Jinping and other officials, hoping to encourage them to implement the sanctions.
China this week told North Korean businesses operating in its territory to close down. However, China remains keen to see negotiations with North Korea.
Trump said last month that “talking is not the answer.”
The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2017
But there were reports of back channels between the two administrations.
According to the Associated Press, the countries had been engaged in quiet discussions for months, with “diplomatic contact… occurring regularly” between the US envoy for North Korea policy and “a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s UN mission.”
Tillerson has also previously hinted there are channels available between the two countries, AP added.
More widely known is the role Sweden plays in negotiating with North Korea on Washington’s behalf.
In August, Ulv Hanssen from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs told Reuters Sweden could step in again because it was trusted by both Washington and Pyongyang.
“Sweden has done so on numerous occasions before, especially in relation to imprisoned Americans,” he said.
However, the Swedish Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the speculation.
What do you think about the US being in direct contact with North Korea? Is it a waste of time? Sound off in the comments below!