HONG KONG – A group of former U.S. officials plans to seek its latest round of informal talks with North Korean officials as tensions escalate in the region.
Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. intelligence specialist who helped broker a agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program, said unofficial talks between the two sides usually take place about every six months. He said his group plans to contact the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York at the end of this month or the beginning of April to arrange the meetings.
DeTrani said he is hopeful that informal talks will eventually lead to exploratory meetings between current U.S. officials and North Korean diplomats. That would allow North Korea to explain its insistence on having a nuclear deterrence, talk about a peace treaty and discuss objections to U.S.-South Korea military exercises, DeTrani said.
“You have to give it a shot, re-engage, have some exploratory talks, and see if you can get some momentum on halting what they are doing, because it is beyond the pale right now,” DeTrani said in a Friday interview.
Tensions over North Korea have increased as dictator Kim Jong Un accelerates his push for more powerful nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. China, Kim’s most prominent ally, has lashed out at South Korea for agreeing to the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
So far the U.S. has rejected China’s calls for a new round of multilateral talks on North Korea, saying that Kim’s “bad behavior” shouldn’t be rewarded. Even so, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to travel to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing this week in search of a new approach to the regime.
A similar effort at engaging Pyongyang was reportedly blocked by the State Department, which refused visas to North Korean officials planning to travel to the U.S. for a round of informal talks in early March with a different set of former U.S. officials. That decision was taken after Kim’s half-brother was murdered at a Malaysian airport in February.
The last meeting involving DeTrani’s group of former American officials took place in Kuala Lumpur in October with North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol. Locations of previous meetings included London and Singapore.
Kim last week fired four ballistic missiles into waters near Japan, his latest provocation as he pursues an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting North America with a nuclear weapon. Commercial satellite imagery indicates Kim is preparing another nuclear test, 38 North, a website that analyses North Korea run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, wrote last week.
DeTrani said that if North Korea doesn’t respond to the talks by stopping its nuclear and missile tests and production of fissile material, then the U.S. should continue to build its missile-defense capabilities and increase military coordination in the region. The U.S. and U.N. should still pursue further sanctions against North Korea even as talks take place, he said.
“Kim Jong Un is making it difficult for anyone to sit down with the North Koreans,” DeTrani said. “But North Korea isn’t prepared to give up its nuclear weapons and will continue to upgrade its missile delivery systems until they perfect them. They are an existential threat to the region now, and with an ICBM they will be an existential threat to the United States.”
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