Officially, the United States and North Korea barely speak to each other, their communications often limited to public exchanges of insults.
But out of the limelight, and sometimes in secret, a small corps of former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials, often working with academic specialists, meet regularly with high-ranking North Koreans. If it’s not quite diplomacy, it sometimes gets pretty close.
“The North Koreans understand that we’re in no way representing the United States government. So sometimes, we can raise things that the U.S. government isn’t able to,” said Leon V. Sigal, a former State Department policy official and long a key player in what are commonly called Track 2 talks. These North Korean discussions are often seen as a key part of Washington-Pyongyang relations.
John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that with communication between North Korea and the U.S. almost non-existent, Track 2 talks have become a placeholder for government-to-government discussions. Informal talks are “a way for the North Koreans to send indirect messages,” he said, and try out ideas they may be hesitant to suggest in official channels.
What has emerged recently from Track 2 discussions? “Even now, as bad as things are, it’s clear” that North Korea is ready to talk, Sigal said. A series of slow, reciprocal steps by both sides — “they would suspend certain activities, the U.S. would take certain steps” — could lead back to official negotiations.
“Most people in Washington have an assumption that the North Koreans are bad guys — which is true enough — but also that you can’t deal with them. I say that assumption is fundamentally wrong,” Sigal said. “I think you have to be talking to them. And that’s the purpose of Track 2.”