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Home / World / US and North Korean spies have held secret talks for a decade

US and North Korean spies have held secret talks for a decade

The secret channel between the Central Intelligence Agency and spies of America's fierce opponent in 2012 included two missions to Pyongyang during the Obama administration, those of Michael Morell, the then deputy CIA director and at least one of his successors, Avril Haines currently designated and former US officials.

The channel seems to have fallen asleep late in the Obama administration. Mike Pompeo again provided a CIA Director who met a representative of the agency to North Korea in Singapore in August 2017.

In early 2018, a whirlwind of secret and public talks brought Messrs. Trump and Kim together in a pomp Singapore meeting in June, and the news channel played a role. The two sides are preparing for a second summit in late February.

Some details of the contacts have already been reported. This article is the most comprehensive description of its operation.

The Channel was not the only factor that brought the leaders together. They took risks in pursuing the summit, the first between their countries. Improving North Korea's relations with South Korea helped.

  Foreign Ministers Mike Pompeo and Andrew Kim left Pyongyang in July 2018.

Foreign Ministers Mike Pompeo and Andrew Kim left Pyongyang in July 2018.


Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

The existence of the news channel, however, reveals a new dimension in the prominence of US-North Korea connections, which structures the public's image of mutual threats, stubborn conversations and, most recently, a high-level summit.

The station, which was founded at least in 2009, created relationships between the security apparatuses that provided a path to diplomacy. An important interlocutor was General Kim Yong Chol, former chief of the spy agency Reconnaissance General Bureau in Pyongyang. Now he was North Korea's leading negotiator and met with Mr Trump and Foreign Minister Pompeo on Friday.

Some of the intelligence meetings were public. When North Korea insisted in 2014 that an elderly US official visit Pyongyang to obtain the release of two imprisoned US citizens, was James Clapper, US director of National Intelligence, who then left. There he met with General Kim.

Mostly the contacts were hidden.

  Kim Yong Chol from North Korea, center, in Washington, after a meeting with Mr. Pompeo on Friday.

North Korea's Kim Yong Chol, center, in Washington after a meeting with Mr. Pompeo on Friday.


Michael Reynolds / EPA / Shutterstock

A glimpse into the secret news channel emerges from current and former government officials of Trump and Obama who describe how administrations have used them and how the channel has contributed to the historic summit.

The CIA, State Department and White House refused to comment on the secret channel, as did a diplomat at the UN Mission to North Korea in New York. Other officials mentioned in this article or their institutions were given the opportunity to comment.

The US and North Korea never had diplomatic relations or embassies in each other's capitals. You have long exchanged news about the North Korean US Mission in New York. Some US officials have considered the usefulness of this channel to be limited and said its primary purpose was to forward messages to the less influential Foreign Ministry of North Korea.

In contrast, the news channel before the new era of the summit was a way to communicate directly with regime hardliners. US officials sometimes referred to it as a "goon channel," which Americans found unpleasant with reference to North Korean interlocutors, but important for deciding on security issues. Some South Korean politicians accuse General Kim of overseeing the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in 2010. The US has accused the espionage agency of hijacking Sony Pictures in 2014. North Korea has rejected the responsibility for both.

Washington used the educational work for various purposes. They expanded from a path to discuss imprisoned Americans into a potential crisis management tool, a means of affirming that the US was ready to normalize relations in return for denuclearization, and a mechanism for the Discussion of summit plans that culminated most recently with a visit by Mr. Pompeo Spring, when he was CIA Director.

  Launch of a test rocket in August 2017 in a photo of a North Korean government.

Launch of a test rocket in August 2017 in a photo of the North Korean government.


/ Associated Press

"The reason for using a channel between the intelligence services would be that, in the event of a kind of crisis, it would be able to reach the people in its system with authority," says Daniel Russel, a high-level State Department and National Security Council official to Asia during the Obama administration. "In countries like North Korea, the State Department generally has limited influence, so you need to be able to talk to the guys about the guns."

There are precedents for using spies for sensitive conversations with authoritarian regimes , British Intelligence and CIA officers launched talks that in 2003 stopped Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

Secret Conversations Begin

Intelligence talks began in 2009, when relations were frozen. President Obama's White House asked Joseph DeTrani to go north. Known as "Broadway Joe" and known for his convivial nature, he was North Korea's "mission manager" of the Director of National Intelligence and coordinated efforts by US spy agencies to decode the hermetic land.

Mr. DeTrani, who speaks Mandarin and spent more than two decades with the CIA, was one of the few American officials who had close ties with North Korea. He was a negotiator during the unfortunate Six Party Talks, an entrepreneurial attempt from 2003 to 2009 to convince North Korea to abandon nuclear ambitions.

"DeTrani thinks it's worth talking to North Korea under all circumstances. We're in communication, we're not misinterpreting what's happening, and there's the opportunity to get openings," says Dennis Blair Admiral Retired and Director of National Intelligence for the First 16 Months of the Obama Administration.

Mr DeTrani's mission was close, demanding that Obama release two US journalists sentenced to 12 years of forced labor DeTrani held unspeakable meetings in Singapore in tense circumstances: Pyongyang carried out missile tests that were rejected by DeTrani's North Korean colleagues to discuss.

The talks helped visit former President Clinton in Pyongyang in 2009 when he interviewed the journalists

  Former President Clinton with then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongy gjang, 2009.

Former President Clinton with Kim Jong Il, North Korea's then leader, in Pyongyang, 2009.


Korean Central News Agency / Associated Press

After taking responsibility for US intelligence efforts to prevent its spread in 2010, Mr. DeTrani made a secret trip to Pyongyang and warned North Korea against the proliferation of nuclear and missile systems.

He handed over the secret meeting baton to Mr. Morell, No. 2 of the CIA. In April 2012, the two officers flew with a US plane from Guam to Pyongyang, and DeTrani introduced the deputy director of the CIA to the north Koreans.

The moment was critical. The Obama administration signed the Leap Day Agreement in February, in which the North approved a moratorium on long-range missile testing and nuclear testing, and shut down nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, including its uranium enrichment facility. The US promised to provide food aid. But Washington said North Korea's plans to launch a satellite would break the agreement.

Kim Jong Il, who ruled North Korea for 17 years, died last December and transferred power to Kim Jong Un, which made it crucial to keep communication channels open.

US. Attempts to cancel this start failed. Mr Morell, a CIA officer with experience in Asia, returned to Pyongyang the following August, saying that North Korea was facing a vote. It could build its nuclear and missile arsenals and suffer diplomatic and economic isolation – or choose denuclearization and become part of the international community.

  Michael Morell in 2012. "title =" Michael Morell in 2012. "/>
          <span class= Michael Morell in 2012.


Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The journey ended disappointed: With Kim Jong Un he did not get the hoped audience.

Insights into the secret channel have occasionally come to the public eye. In late 2012, a South Korean newspaper reported that mysterious Americans had traveled to North Korea twice. The Financial Times reported in January 2018 that Morell had made a secret trip to North Korea in 2012.

Mr. Morell was replaced as Deputy Director of the CIA by Mrs Haines, whose move to a senior post in national security included holding an independent bookstore. She traveled to Pyongyang from August 2013 to January 2015 during her tenure as the No. 2 CIA.

Despite the lack of breakthroughs, some former officials say it is useful to have contact with harsh elements of the regime rather than influential and control the security apparatus holding US prisoners. The channel's secrecy also allowed the Obama administration to encourage international partners to diplomatically and economically isolate Pyongyang through a denuclearization pressure initiative.

"It was the only reliable communication channel for the most basic problems," says A senior Trump administration official. "There, the North Koreans have felt comfortable."

Skeptics Behind the Channels

Foreign Ministry clerks who worked in parallel while North Korean diplomats worked in New York and sent emissaries on rare voyages to North Korea were aware of the return channel. Nevertheless, skeptics among former administrators have questioned whether the covert channel has reduced the traditional negotiating role of the State Department.

"It's always important to keep channels of communication open, but ambassadors and messages are important," Joel Wit, a former State Department official, now says at the Stimson Center, an impartial Washington think tank. "Intelligence officers are not trained diplomats, and if they do not convey the right message, they can backfire."

  Joseph DeTrani, lower right, 2015 in Singapore.

Joseph DeTrani, lower right, in Singapore in 2015.


Wong Maye-E / Associate Press

The use of the hidden canal seems to have grown and decreased. After the 2016 intelligence reports showed that North Korea's missile and nuclear programs were making progress, economic sanctions were imposed in Washington, including against Kim Jong Un. There seemed to be an interruption on high-level visits, though it is not clear if the channel was completely inactive.

When the voltage increased in August 2017, the canal was re-energized. This month, Trump threatened North Korea's leaders with "fire and rage." The annual war games in the US and South Korea resumed, and Pyongyang responded by testing a ballistic missile over Japan.

Andrew Kim, an experienced CIA officer and head of the agency's new Korea Mission Center, traveled to Singapore to meet with North Korean officials. Mr. Kim, former head of several CIA overseas stations, was born in South Korea and has had long-standing relationships with his highest national security officials.

Separate efforts, in addition to the news channel, also show Mr Trump's interest in establishing a dialogue. In September, North-Korean Foreign Minister Jeffrey Feltman, a former US diplomat working as UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs, invited people to a dialogue in Pyongyang.

U.N. General Secretary António Guterres invited him to first implement the idea from other interested countries, says Feltman. The representatives of the Trump administration advised against the journey. But when Mr. Guterres addressed the matter with Mr. Trump at a meeting at the Oval Office in October, the president said Mr. Feltman should go, Mr. Feltman and a US spokesman say. The personal role of Mr. Trump in approving the trip has not been announced before.

Feltman made the journey public. During the four-day meeting in December 2017, he told the North Koreans that the US was not the only country to be alerted to nuclear and missile testing. He gave a copy of "The Sleepwalkers," a book about how European nations stumbled into World War I, to North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. Jeffrey Feltman, center, 2017 in Pyongyang during a four-day visit. "=" Jeffrey Feltman, center, in Pyongyang in 2017 during a four-day visit. "/>

Jeffrey Feltman, center, 2017 in Pyongyang during a four-day visit.


Jon Chol Jin / Associated Press

In a November speech, Kim Jong Un had praised that his country had completed the construction of its nuclear and rocket troops. In this speech, Mr. Feltman cited the North Koreans to redirect their efforts towards the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, in order to seek an opening with South Korea and the West, an idea that officials in Pyongyang might already have had.

Kim Jong's 2018 New Year's speech pointed to change: while emphasizing his nuclear capabilities, he offered to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics.

The South Korean government promoted the idea of ​​a high-level meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. The idea was also examined in the secret channel.

In March, South Korean officials visited the White House and shared the North Korean leader's invitation with Mr. Trump. The plan was for then National Security Advisor H. McMaster and senior officials to discuss with the South Koreans, discuss the bid and meet the South Koreans the next day with Mr. Trump.

Instead, Trump decided to meet the South Koreans there and there, and immediately agreed to the summit and said, "Tell them I'll do it."

The government still wanted a direct confirmation from the North Korean leadership wanted a summit The news channel had been active since the August meeting in Singapore, and the US took advantage of it to confirm that the invitation from the Pyongyang summit came from above and the plans for the meeting were pushed forward.

In late March, Pompeo and CIA director flew to Pyongyang. Six weeks later he resigned as foreign minister, accompanied by Andrew Kim, and returned with three American prisoners.

Less than a month later Messrs. Trump and Kim met in Singapore.

US North Korea Diplomacy is now largely open and takes place at the highest level. Intelligence contacts continue. On Friday, General Kim met in Washington unannounced with Deputy Director of the CIA, Vaughn Bishop.

Please contact Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com and Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com

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