The US Has a Back Channel to Pyongyang

Tillerson and Wang Yi Sep30-2017- 37361067396_f712f7953a_o
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson meets Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing on September 30. Image Credit: US State Department via Flickr.

The United States has three separate lines of contact with Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea, according to US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

‘We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,’ he was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

Tillerson made this revelation in Beijing on Saturday, after discussions on North Korea with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and President Xi Jinping. ‘We are probing, so stay tuned,’ he said, adding that the US lines of communication with North Korea did not go through China.

The US secretary of state’s disclosure comes just days after President Donald Trump and North Koreas’s Kim Jong Un publicly traded insults. North Korea threatened to shoot down American bombers in international airspace and conduct an atmospheric nuclear test, possibly by firing a missile with a live warhead.

On September 23, Trump seemed to threaten North Korea with nuclear annihilation in a tweet, warning that if they continued down their current path ‘they won’t be around much longer!’

Talk about what?

Tillerson has indicated that the US is seeking denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. While that outcome is extremely unlikely without major internal changes in North Korea, it’s viable as an opening gambit in negotiations.

If Kim Jong Un does take up the US on its offer of negotiations, early meeting are likely to be talks about talks- with both sides trying to gauge the other’s priorities and what they’re willing to put on the table.

For the moment, Tillerson appears to be focused on easing tensions.

‘The whole situation is a bit overheated right now’, he said. ‘I think if North Korea would stop firing all the missiles, that would calm down things a lot.’

It’s not clear if Kim Jong Un values talks at the moment. Tensions with the US help Kim rally his people. They also seem to provoke Trump into making empty threats that only sap the confidence of his two treaty allies, South Korea and Japan.

Indeed, it’s unclear how South Korea and Japan will react to talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly said the door for negotiations is open, but Kim has ignored him. As some argue, the North Korean leader considers the South an occupied state and wants to negotiate directly with the US as an equal.

The Japanese are more sceptical than the South Koreans. In a column for The New York Times on September 17, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rejected the idea of talking to Pyongyang, writing that ‘more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end.’ With news of American back channels to Kim Jong Un breaking, he faces potential criticism from his opponents ahead of a snap general election on October 22.

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