While the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea is gyrating in all directions—mostly bad—someone in Washington is keeping hope alive. Namely, despite escalating tensions which appear to be approaching a violent breaking point, there might be a peaceful way out of what some pundits are calling a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis.”
Reports emerged last week that American and North Korean diplomats were holding secret meetings in New York City. In fact, the “New York” channel between the United States and North Korea has existed since the early 1990s. For decades after the Korean War, there were no official contacts between the two countries as Washington pursued a policy of isolating Pyongyang. The Reagan administration shifted gears in the late 1980s and began a policy of limited engagement with North Korea because of concerns about its nascent nuclear weapons program and a desire to support South Korea’s policy of reaching out to Pyongyang. American and North Korean diplomats in Beijing held occasional meetings to discuss important issues. But as the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear program mounted at the beginning of the Clinton administration, the U.S. decided that it was more convenient for executive branch officials to hop on an airplane shuttle for the short ride from Washington to New York to meet North Korean diplomats at the United Nations than to endure the grueling 14-hour trek to Beijing. Those New York sessions often took place in isolated, dingy basement rooms at UN headquarters beyond the prying eyes of reporters.
The New York channel has had highs and lows. In its heyday in the 1990s, frequent meetings laid the groundwork for the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, the first denuclearization arrangement with the North—as well as other initiatives to improve bilateral relations. The channel’s low point came at the end of the Obama administration, when the North Koreans shut it down after U.S. sanctions for the first time personally targeted Kim Jong Un in July 2016. But the channel had already fallen on hard times, prompting North Korean officials to rename it the “Kenneth Bae” channel since, according to them, the Obama administration only wanted to meet to press for the release of the detained Korean American missionary who spent 18 months in a North Korean jail from 2013 until late 2014.