In what may be the most bizarre development of the day, the WaPo reports that in their ongoing feud with President Trump, the North Korean government has quietly sought the help of an unlikely counterparty: Republicans.
As the WaPo details, officials in Pyongyang have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, "in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un’s regime." The outreach is said to have begun before the current eruption of threats between the two leaders, but will likely become only more urgent "as Trump and Kim have descended into name-calling that sharply increases the chances of potentially catastrophic misunderstandings."
“Their No. 1 concern is Trump. They can’t figure him out,” a source with direct knowledge of North Korea’s approach to Asia experts with Republican connections told the WaPo.
While the North Koreans do not appear to be interested in negotiations about their nuclear program, they want forums for insisting on being recognized as a nuclear state, something the Trump administration has made clear it is not interested in. At a multilateral meeting here in Switzerland earlier this month, North Korea’s representatives were adamant about being recognized as a nuclear weapons state and showed no willingness to even talk about denuclearization.
But to get a better understanding of American intentions, in the absence official diplomatic talks with the U.S. government, North Korea’s mission to the United Nations invited Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is now the Heritage Foundation’s top expert on North Korea, to visit Pyongyang for meetings.
Trump has close ties to Heritage, a conservative think-tank which has influenced the president on everything from travel restrictions to defense spending, although not to Klingner personally.
“They’re on a new binge of reaching out to American scholars and ex-officials,” said Klingner, who declined the North Korean invitation. “While such meetings are useful, if the regime wants to send a clear message, it should reach out directly to the U.S. government.”
North Korean intermediaries have also approached Douglas Paal, who served as an Asia expert on the national security councils of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
They wanted Paal to arrange talks between North Korean officials and American experts with Republican ties in a neutral place like Switzerland. He also declined the North Korean request.
“The North Koreans are clearly eager to deliver a message. But I think they’re only interested in getting some travel, in getting out of the country for a bit,” Paal said.
While in the past North Korea has traditionally participated in strategy meeting with foreign power on neutral soil such as Geneva, Singapore and Malaysia, since Trump’s election in November, the North Korean representatives have been predominantly interested in figuring out the unconventional president’s strategy, according to almost a dozen people involved in the discussions.
While early in Trump’s term, the North Koreans had been asking broad questions - Is President Trump serious about closing American military bases in South Korea and Japan, as he said on the campaign trail? Might he really send American nuclear weapons back to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula - the questions have since become more specific. Why are Trump’s top officials, notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, directly contradicting the president so often?
“My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going, so they’re trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official. “They haven’t seen the U.S. act like this before.”
Still, participants at various international summits which included the North Koreans are skeptical about this approach: “I’m very pessimistic,” said Shin Beom-chul, a North Korea expert at the South’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, after participating in the meeting in Glion. “They want to keep their nuclear weapons and they will only return to dialogue after the United States nullifies its ‘hostile policy.’ They want the U.S. to stop all military exercises and lift all sanctions on them.”
The bottom line: “North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state,” said Ken Jimbo, who teaches at Keio University in Japan. “But when is North Korea ready for talks? This is what I kept asking the North Koreans: How much is enough?”
While we doubt that Pyongyang will ever be able to figure out Trump, perhaps as a token of diplomacy, Kim Jong-Un can create a twitter account and engage in direct head-to-head tweetstorms with Trump. While that would hardly prevent a potential adverse fallout from the two leaders' relentless jawboning, at least the devolution of the world to a pre-nuclear war state will be far more entertaining.