A top State Department official met with a top representative of the North Korean government in New York in March, The Cable has learned.
Clifford Hart, the State Department's special envoy to the now-defunct six-party talks, met North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations Han Song-ryol in mid-March, just before North Korea began its latest string of provocative statements and actions, diplomatic sources said. The meeting was done through what's known in diplomatic circles as the "New York channel," the most common method of direct communication between Washington and Pyongyang.
No real progress was made during the meeting and no new offers were made by the U.S. officials present, the sources said. The U.S. side simply reiterated the administration's call for North Korea to avoid provocative actions as well as its offer for a return to diplomacy if North Korea recommitted to fulfilling its international obligations and pursuing a path of denuclearization. The North Korean side simply agreed to communicate that information back to Pyongyang.
For outside experts critical of the Obama administration's current approach to North Korea, which is based on the principle of "strategic patience," or waiting for Pyongyang to change its calculus and rejoin multilateral talks, the meeting is only the latest indication that the administration's policy is stagnant.
"Unfortunately, the New York channel, which in the past was an important communications link between Pyongyang and Washington, appears to have become a place where boilerplate talking points are exchanged," former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit told The Cable. "It's especially disappointing given the ongoing crisis which puts a premium on candid communication to avoid misunderstanding and to find a diplomatic off-ramp from the current tense situation."
Most recently, the New York channel was used to warn the State Department just before North Korea tested a nuclear bomb for the third time in February. North Korea is expected to test a medium-range ballistic missile as early as Wednesday and another warning could come to the Obama administration via North Korea's representative office at the U.N.
A former U.S. official who worked on North Korea in past administrations described how the New York channel works in an interview with The Cable just after the last nuclear test.
"It's been the main channel of communication between the North Korean government and the U.S. government. We don't have any other channels we use," the official said.
Han, the main official who runs the New York channel, also represented North Korea at two unofficial meetings with U.S. interlocutors in 2012 that were reported by The Cable, one in Singapore and one in Dalian, China. Hart attended both of those meetings.
The State Department declined to comment on the March New York meeting, in keeping with its past reticence to discuss the New York channel.
"They're afraid of their shadows," the former official said. "It's like 'No one can know we are actually communicating with these people because they are bad.'"
Secretary of State John Kerry will visit China, South Korea, and Japan later this week. A senior administration told CNN that Kerry will try to present a diplomatic path out of the crisis during his trip.
At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell declined to say whether there have been any communications with Pyongyang through the New York channel since March.
"Well, you know we have a channel of communications. I don't have anything specifically to read out about that. But the channel remains open as necessary," he said.