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U.S. Has Occasional Contact With North Korea Diplomats


Judging by the rhetoric last week, it might've seemed like we were on the brink of war with North Korea. North Korea threatened to attack Guam. President Trump warned of fire and fury. The president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was on ABC's "This Week." This, he said, is how he looks at the tensions with North Korea.


H R MCMASTER: We're not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago.

GREENE: Now, he may be looking back to a time about a decade ago when there seemed to be less tension. The U.S. was actually talking directly with Pyongyang in the so-called six-party talks in 2009. Since then, there has still been occasional contact. A small group of Americans sits down every now and then with North Korean diplomats. In diplo-speak (ph), this is known as Track II diplomacy. Suzanne DiMaggio has been in that room. She is a senior fellow at the think tank New America, and she joins us.

Good morning.


GREENE: So what exactly is Track II diplomacy? Who's involved in these discussions that you've sat in on? And what do these meetings - what do they look like?

DIMAGGIO: Well, if you think of Track I as the official, normal relations between governments, Track II is unofficial discussions that often happen under the radar because of sensitivities. And they usually include nongovernmental officials, former senior officials, former diplomats and so forth, in case...

GREENE: ...Including you, right?

DIMAGGIO: Exactly. I'm nongovernmental, but I work with a lot of former senior officials. In the case of North Korea themselves, they are government officials because, of course, North Korea doesn't have nongovernmental organizations.

GREENE: So you said because of sensitivities, these happen quietly. Is that domestic politics - like, this is people in the United - like, leaders in the United States, leaders in North Korea not wanting their people to know that these discussions are happening, but there's a willingness to talk.

DIMAGGIO: That's certainly part of it. I think there's political sensitivities, but there's also - you know, you're trying to create a atmosphere that is informal, relaxed. And if you have media there breathing down your neck, and watching every move and trying to get into these discussions, it makes things less relaxed.

GREENE: OK, so Americans are often shocked by the rhetoric that comes from Pyongyang. I mean, it can be so over-the-top. I mean, the government in North Korea's called the United States a cesspool of evils. They, a few years ago, called the South Korean president, quote, "a dirty prostitute." The North was threatening to attack Guam last week. Are they that abrasive and that bellicose when you're sitting across the table?

DIMAGGIO: In my experience, no, thankfully.


DIMAGGIO: The discussions, the level can get heated and, certainly, tense, given the profound differences that exist between our governments. But I find that, in these situations, it's clear that we're not representing our government, so they don't hold us accountable for that. But at the same time, there's a certain level of respect because I think they understand we're there to try to help the situation.

GREENE: Where are these talks happening? What does the setting look like?

DIMAGGIO: It varies. I've been to Pyongyang for some of these talks, which is quite different. You know, they're - you're meeting them where they sit. In some ways, I actually prefer that because you - they're more relaxed. And you do get a sense of what their threat perceptions are from Pyongyang.

Other places tend to be capitals in Europe or elsewhere where both parties feel comfortable. Sometimes a third country is necessary to help facilitate that, to make it possible. And there are, thankfully, other governments that are willing to play that role.

GREENE: So Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said President Trump's talk of fire and fury, being locked and loaded, is him using language that Kim Jong Un would understand because he doesn't seem to understand diplomatic language. Do you agree with that assessment, based on your insider's perspective?

DIMAGGIO: Actually, I don't. I really disagree with it. First of all, it contradicts everything his other senior officials are saying, particularly Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson, who were saying we need a peaceful, diplomatic approach. So for the North Koreans - where we have so little interaction, and they're reading every word the administration says and watching cable news - it's confusing, and it can lead to misreadings. That's my concern, especially during this period of high - heightened tensions.

GREENE: Suzanne DiMaggio is a senior fellow at the think tank New America. And she has been involved in occasional discussions with North Korean diplomats and was giving us an inside look at those talks. Thanks so much for talking to us this morning. We appreciate it.

DIMAGGIO: It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BALABARISTAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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