President Trump's administration has maintained a direct backchannel to the North Korean regime over the last several months, even as the two countries continue to spar in public, according to a new report.
Diplomats from each country maintain a relationship with each other in New York, fostered as well by outside groups that favor direct engagement. The revelation comes as the United States and North Korea have engaged in a war of words over sanctions that are designed to induce the North Koreans agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons program as a condition of negotiations with the west.
"The contacts are occurring regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country's U.N. mission," the Associated Press reported. "Officials call it the 'New York channel.' Yun is the only U.S. diplomat in contact with any North Korean counterpart. The communications largely serve as a way to exchange messages, allowing Washington and Pyongyang to relay information."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised Yun directly during a recent discussion of U.S. efforts to handle the crisis.
"We're trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond," he said last week. "I'm quite proud of what we've accomplished. In dealing with North Korea, Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton and Ambassador Joseph Yun have been stellar in helping us develop these policies and carry them out."
Yun has worked to secure the release of American hostages detained in North Korea, such as Otto Warmbier. His duties as the State Department's point person for North Korea have taken him throughout the region and to Russia, as he worked to assemble international consensus on how to confront the region.
Those efforts featured pointed demonstrations of the lack of contact between the United States and North Korea, despite the backchannel. When Yun attended the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue in July, the State Department emphasized the need for the regime to change it's behavior before negotiations could begin.
"There are no sideline meetings on Ambassador Yun's schedule that I am aware of," a State Department spokeswoman said then. "The United States remains open to credible talks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume."
The report that Yun has a broader portfolio comes as President Trump and the regime are exchanging ominous threats, following last week's passage of a new sanctions package at the United Nations Security Council.
"Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely," Trump tweeted Friday. "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely."