Malaysia – Preparations are underway to bring senior North Korean representatives to the United States for talks with former American officials, the first such meeting in more than five years and a sign that Pyongyang sees a potential opening with the Trump administration.
Arranging the talks has become a lot more complicated over the past eight days, with North Korea testing a ballistic missile and the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half brother in Malaysia, an act that many suspect was ordered by the leader of North Korea. Malaysian police on Sunday named as suspects four North Koreans who left the country on the day of the attack.
Analysts also say they are highly doubtful that Pyongyang, which has insisted on being recognized as a nuclear state, would be willing to moderate its position on its weapons program.
But if the talks do take place, they could offer a glimmer of hope for an already-hostile relationship that has only deteriorated as the Kim government works aggressively to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the continental United States.
The planning for the “Track 1.5” talks – with the U.S. side made up of the former officials who usually take part in Track 2 talks, but the North Korean side comprising government officials – is still in a preparatory stage, according to multiple people with knowledge of the arrangements.
The State Department has not yet approved the North Koreans’ visas for the talks, which would take place in New York within the next few weeks.
“The North Koreans have expressed an interest in engagement, but nothing’s been approved yet,” said one person familiar with the preparations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them. Others who have been in touch with North Koreans describe an intense interest in what President Donald Trump might do.
“If this happens, it would be an interesting signal to the new administration,” he said of the discussions.
The talks would be the clearest indication yet that Kim wants to talk with the Trump administration. “If this happens, I would take it as a very positive sign from both sides,” said another person with knowledge of the arrangements.
In recent years, there have been sporadic Track 1.5 talks that have taken place in Kuala Lumpur, Geneva, Berlin and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. But these talks have not taken place in the United States since July 2011, before Kim succeeded his father in North Korea.
The planned talks are being organized by Donald S. Zagoria of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, who served as a consultant on Asia during the Carter administration and has organized previous rounds of such talks. Zagoria declined to comment on the preparations.
The talks would be run independently of the State Department, where officials have privately questioned the utility of such discussions. But if the administration issued the visas – not required when the talks are held in third countries – it would be an implicit seal of approval.
Choe Son Hui, the director of the U.S. affairs department in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, is likely to lead the delegation from Pyongyang. She is well known to American officials, having participated in official meetings including the six-party talks on denuclearization, as well as in other Track 1.5 talks.
Choe has a direct line to Kim, according to Thae Yong Ho, the North Korean deputy ambassador to London who defected to South Korea last year.
Since Trump was elected, there has been a notable change in North Korea’s usually bombastic rhetoric.
Pyongyang had been sharply critical of the Obama administration, saying its policy of “strategic patience” – waiting for North Korea to change its nuclear calculations – was “an aggressive and heinous ‘strategic suffocation’ policy” against North Korea.
But in its announcement of its missile launch Feb. 12, the North’s state media did not include its usual bluster about needing a deterrent against the United States and its “hostile policies.”
In his own statement after the launch, Trump notably did not condemn Pyongyang. The new president has, in fact, said very little about how he plans to deal with North Korea. “North Korea – we’ll take care of it folks, we’re going to take care of it all,” he said at his news conference last week, without elaborating.
His administration is now conducting a review of North Korean policy. This provides space to broaden the options for dealing with Pyongyang and an opportunity to influence the new president, analysts say.
While some expect him to take a hard-line approach, encouraged by hawkish advisers, others say that Trump, who prides himself on making deals, could be open to dialogue with the North Korean regime.
“U.S. policy is hanging in the balance,” said Adam Cathcart, an expert on North Korea at the University of Leeds in Britain.
“I think the North Koreans ought to be pretty happy, because the Americans have laid off criticizing them too much and have, in fact, been making things quite easy for them,” Cathcart said. “But at some point, they are going to have to decide whether to pick up the cudgel.”
For those favoring an even tougher approach to North Korea, recent events have provided plenty of ammunition.
Last Sunday, North Korea tested a ballistic missile for the first time since Trump was elected. The missile appeared to show significant technological advances, with upgraded power and range, and could mark another step in the push toward the capacity to hit Alaska or Washington state.
Then on Monday, Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of the North Korean leader, was attacked and apparently poisoned at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He died shortly afterward.
Although the investigation is ongoing, the South Korean government has blamed the assassination on Kim Jong Un, who has systematically eliminated potential rivals to his power over the past four years.
Malaysian police have arrested one North Korean man in connection with the attack – he is said to have a background in chemistry – and on Sunday named four other North Koreans suspected of being involved.
The four had been in Malaysia for several weeks, but all left last Monday, the day of the attack, said Noor Rashid Ibrahim, Malaysia’s deputy national police chief, on Sunday at a news conference.
Complicating the environment even further, the South Korean and U.S. militaries are due to start annual joint exercises next month, an event that always elicits an angry response from Pyongyang, which sees the drills as a pretext for an invasion.
In the past year or two, the exercises have become more overtly offensive, with the two militaries practicing “decapitation strikes” on the North Korean leadership.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield