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Even as President Donald Trump says the US military is “locked and loaded” to potentially unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea, the two feuding countries have for months been holding secretive, back-channel talks, The Associated Press reported Friday.
In a process dubbed the New York channel, Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy and the only American diplomat to meet with a North Korean counterpart, passes messages between the two nuclear-armed nations – though it’s unclear whether any contacts had discussed the most recent threats by each country.
“Since the early 1990s, we’ve used the New York channel as a way of communicating with Pyongyang because we don’t have diplomatic relations with North Koreans,” said Joel Wit, a former State Department employee and the founder of 38 North, a website for expert analysis on North Korea.
Serious negotiations sometimes happen in the channel, Wit told Business Insider, while at other points it’s a drop box for mail. But the US and North Korea still talking amid threats shows that the public drama doesn’t necessarily translate to private anger or calls to action.
“After the Obama administration imposed sanctions, the North Koreans cut off communication,” Wit said, adding that “it’s a good sign” it has resumed.
“In theory, it can show the administration understands that in order to accomplish things it not only needs to adopt maximum pressure, but also have some discussion with the North Korea,” Wit said.
Wit called Trump’s mix of threats and dialogue “coercive diplomacy 101.”
“You’re not just threatening people because you want to threaten them – you’re threatening them because you want them to take offerings,” Wit said.
Much of the world reacted with alarm to both Trump’s comment on Tuesday that the US would respond to threats from North Korea “with fire and fury like the world has never seen” and North Korea’s response that it would mull plans to fire missiles toward Guam, a US territory in the Pacific.
Wit said the back and forth of threats between the countries was “perfectly understandable” and “happens all the time” in the world of diplomacy.