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North, U.S. schedule first track 1.5 talks under Trump

May 09,2017
A senior North Korean diplomat was scheduled to hold talks with former U.S. officials in Europe this week, the first such dialogue since the start of the Donald Trump administration.

Choe Son-hui, a director general of North American affairs at Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry, departed for Europe through Beijing Sunday, to meet with unidentified former U.S. officials currently in the private sector for so-called track 1.5, or semi-governmental, semi-civilian talks, reported Japanese media.

TV Asahi said the two sides are expected to discuss the North Korean nuclear and missile issue and future bilateral relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

The back-channel dialogue was expected to take place over Monday and Tuesday in Oslo, Norway, after a similar track 1.5 meeting to be held in New York was canceled in March.

Choe was initially expected to head to New York for unofficial talks with former U.S. officials and experts at the beginning of March but the trip fell through due to visa denial to the North Korean envoy by the U.S. Department of State.

The visa cancellation came on the heels of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia by a toxic nerve agent on Feb. 13.

This meeting was reported to have been arranged by Donald Zagoria, a vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, who served as consultant on Asian affairs in the Jimmy Carter administration and has been involved in similar nongovernmental dialogues with Pyongyang in the past.

A U.S. State Department official said Sunday that such non-governmental “track 2” talks “are routinely held on a variety of topics around the world and occur independent of U.S. government involvement.”

“We are aware that the track 1.5 dialogue had continued to be planned for, and there has continuous contact on a smaller scale,” said Lee Duk-haeng, a spokesman of the South Korean Ministry of Unification in a briefing Monday, referring to the dialogue with Pyongyang officials. He added that this appears to be the first such track 1.5 talks under the Trump administration.

He also brushed off concerns that the talks between the United States and North Korea are leaving out the South, reiterating that the dialogue “is not related to the U.S. government.”

Lee said, “We do not weigh too much importance on this contact as our government has been closely cooperating with the U.S. government on issues related to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” adding Seoul plans to “understand in-depth the various channels of dialogue by the U.S. government and civilians.”

Such track 1.5 talks, while not official, are seen as a way to sound out ideas with Pyongyang. It comes after the Trump administration has solidified its North Korea strategy of maximum pressure then engagement and South Korea is undergoing a government transition with a presidential election to take place Tuesday.

“Choe arrived in Beijing on May 4 and stayed with the North Korean embassy and departed on May 7,” a source in Beijing told the JoongAng Ilbo Monday. “There are many cases in the past that a meeting with former U.S. officials took place in a third country in the past. It seems that this time around will also involve a former Democratic administration official.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed last week legislation tightening sanctions on North Korea.

Washington has also asked the international community to step up pressure on Pyongyang, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged countries during a UN Security Council foreign ministerial meeting last month to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea if the regime continues its provocations.

But Trump has also recently reiterated his position that he is open to dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - under the right circumstances. Previously, former U.S. officials met with a North Korean delegation in Geneva in November, shortly after the election of Trump as president.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]