After threatening North Korea with "fire and fury" earlier this week, Donald Trump has since escalated his threats, most recently warning the isolated country that American military solutions were "locked and loaded." Trump did not rule out of the possibility of further negotiations with North Korea when speaking to reporters on Thursday, but he also appeared to dismiss the effectiveness of diplomacy and U.N. sanctions. Nonetheless, the Associated Press reported on Friday that Joseph Yun, a senior U.S. diplomat, has spent months conducting back-channel diplomacy with North Korea, even as Trump continues to escalate tensions with the country.
It was public knowledge that Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, had communicated with Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country's U.N. mission, to secure the release of American student Otto Warmbier back in June. However, the Associated Press reported that the United States has not only retained these contacts, but also engaged them in topics other than American detainees in North Korea. Despite Trump's increasingly aggressive rhetoric in recent days, the Trump administration has quietly been discussing deteriorating relations with the isolated nation behind the scenes.
Unnamed sources reportedly told the Associated Press that this back-channel diplomacy has thus far failed to assuage concerns about North Korea's escalation of its missile and nuclear program. That being said, these sources also suggested that negotiation could still be possible, if Trump and Kim Jong-un publicly endorse negotiations over threats. Although Trump's recent remarks may make such an endorsement difficult, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have all encouraged a peaceful resolution to the rising tensions between the United States and North Korea.
As part of what officials described as the "New York channel," Yun has maintained contact with Song, making him the only American diplomat to have any contact with his North Korean counterpart. This channel of communication enables the United States and North Korea to communicate with one another. The ongoing contacts between the countries also appear to suggest that North Korea is still open to negotiations, despite making plans to launch a nuclear strike against American military targets in Guam.
Neither the White House nor the State Department commented on the reported maintenance of the New York channel, and a diplomat at North Korea’s U.N. mission only confirmed to the Associated Press that the channel had been used to negotiate Warmbier's release.