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‘Back channel’ is being used by U.S. and North

Aug 15,2017
WASHINGTON - Despite exchanges of bellicose rhetoric and threats, Washington and Pyongyang have been using a diplomatic back channel to discuss American prisoners in the North.

Known as the “New York Channel,” the behind-the-scene discussions have been taking place regularly since the advent of the Donald Trump administration between U.S. envoy for North Korea policy Joseph Yun and North Korea’s top diplomat at the UN, Pak Song-il, the Associated Press said.

“Pyongyang was ready to send a high-level delegation to New York to meet with senior U.S. experts on North Korea and former officials for a ‘track two’ set of discussions in late August,” the Washington Post reported last week. “The meetings were to be hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a small but influential think tank that has a long history of arranging such private interactions. The North Korean delegation was to be led by Choe Son Hui, deputy director general of the North Korean foreign ministry’s U.S. affairs department.”

The plan was scrapped in July, the paper said, because Washington and Pyongyang could not agree to the terms of a meeting. The U.S. wanted the North to show more efforts in releasing three Americans they have imprisoned, and that expectation was not met.

Choe was the interpreter for Pyongyang from 1990 to 2010 in Washington-Pyongyang dialogues and the six-party denuclearization talks. She was the vice negotiator for the talks in 2011 and in 2016 took her current role at the North’s Foreign Ministry U.S. affairs department.

“She is the daughter of Choe Yong-nim, former North Korean premier, and studied in Beijing with other elites of the North,” said Thae Yong-ho, former deputy ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in London, who defected to South Korea last summer. “Her credentials are excellent.”

According to diplomatic insiders, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy tried to invite Choe and a crew from Pyongyang to New York in March, but the plan was disrupted after Kim Jong-un’s brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia in February. The plan was postponed to August, and then cancelled recently.

Choe and Yun have met once already, in Norway in May, when Yun asked the North to release four Americans held hostage by the North at the time, including Otto Warmbier, an American student. Warmbier was released in June but in a vegetative state, and died a few days later.

The three Americans still being held are Kim Hak-song, an agricultural researcher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Tony Kim (or Kim Sang-duk), an accounting teacher at the same school and Kim Dong-chul, a businessman.

“Trump has entrusted directly to Yun the task of bringing back the Americans held hostage in the North,” said a diplomatic source in Washington D.C., under the condition of anonymity. “If the North releases the three Americans, as it did Canadian pastor Lim Hyeon-soo recently, then it will be much easier for the Trump administration to pursue high-level talks with Pyongyang.”

Lim, 62, was released Wednesday after being held for two and a half years in a prison in the North.

“The best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a press conference during his stay in the Philippines last week for the Asean Regional Forum. “Obviously, we have other means of communication open to them, to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk.”

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]