UNITED NATIONS – Han Song Ryol, the North Korean diplomat who serves as his country’s principal liaison with the United States, has spent the better part of the past two decades exploring the prospects for a normalized bilateral relationship with Washington.
From his perch at North Korea’s mission to the United Nations on Manhattan’s East Side, Han oversees Pyongyang’s end of the New York channel, a diplomatic conduit that was established in the early 1990s and that, in a more hopeful era, paved the way for the first visit by a high-ranking North Korean official to Washington.
But the importance of the New York channel has been noticeably diminished over the years, according to diplomats. Today, with the U.S. and North Korea at a standoff and the threat of a fourth nuclear test by the North looming, Han’s channel has been reduced to a diplomatic P.O. box that passes occasional messages between capitals and arranges travel for VIP visits to Pyongyang.
The shift, diplomats and others say, underscores the radicalization of North Korea’s foreign policy and a growing pessimism that relations can be improved.
“These people in New York are not authorized to say anything or do anything — they don’t have the authority to deviate from specific instructions,” said Han Park, a University of Georgia professor with long-standing ties to the North Korean government.
The diminished status of the New York channel also speaks to the waning influence of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, which oversees the conduit, in shaping the country’s relationship with the U.S. For its part, the Obama administration has shown little interest in cultivating the channel more assiduously, on the grounds that Han and his North Korean colleagues have little influence back home and little authority to advance relations, diplomats and former U.S. officials said.
In the absence of a more substantive diplomatic channel, tensions between the North and the U.S. have mounted in recent weeks, with Pyongyang issuing a series of increasingly provocative threats. To persuade a change of course, the U.S. has relied on economic pressure, including a new round of U.N. sanctions, and hopes China can use its leverage to convince Pyongyang that it should stand down.
Some North Korea watchers say the New York channel remains important, particularly since the country, which has recently severed most of its lines of communication with South Korea, has moved to further isolate itself.
“It serves only as a communications channel, although messages can be and have been sent between the highest levels of the two governments,” said Kun A. “Tony” Namkung, who maintains close contacts with the mission and who helped arrange recent visits to Pyongyang by ex-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt.
“It remains wide open and is in good shape. Given the recent cutting off of the military hotline at the DMZ, its importance has actually increased,” he added, referring to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Han first arrived in New York in the early 1990s and served nearly five years as a young counselor, initially as an aide to the mission’s top ambassador.
During the Clinton era, the New York channel served various functions, according to Evans Revere, a senior State Department official at the time who functioned as the Washington end of the New York channel. It was, Revere said, a “sounding board and exploratory vehicle” for resolving differences between Pyongyang and Washington, and for serving as the “eyes and ears” of North Korea in the United States and as “the voice of the regime” for American audiences.
In 2002, after a hiatus from the mission, Han returned to New York, where he served two stints as the envoy responsible for U.S. relations, the first of which ended after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, in 2006. Over the past few years, the New York channel’s role, however, has been limited.
“One has to wonder whether and to what degree the channel is able to report back fully and frankly on developments in the U.S., and also the extent to which the leadership in Pyongyang is actually listening to what the channel is reporting,” Revere said.
A portrait of Han emerges in the book “Eating With the Enemy” by Robert Egan, a New Jersey restaurant owner and prisoner of war advocate who befriended the North Korean diplomat. Acting as an informal fixer, Egan took Han and his colleagues fishing and pheasant hunting, and to New York Giants and New Jersey Nets games.
In Egan’s telling, Han revealed himself as a former North Korean soldier who professed admiration for billionaire developer Donald Trump, passed on a proposal through Egan to sell North Korean nuclear weapons for billions in cash, and once tried to help Egan negotiate the return of the USS Pueblo, an American naval intelligence vessel captured by the North Koreans in 1968. When the book was published, Han exploded with anger, telling Egan that the revelations could serve as a “death sentence” back home, the author recalled in an interview.
Since then, Egan said, he has had relatively little contact with the North Korean mission. As for Han, U.S. officials and other North Korea watchers say he has maintained his position as Pyongyang’s key link with American officials but has become far more cautious. Diplomats close to Han say that his latest posting will end soon and that he is likely to depart New York in the summer, with little to show for his efforts.