Meet the Diplomats Playing the Long Game With North Korea

Meet the Diplomats Playing the Long Game With North Korea

By Viola Gienger

Korean People's Army soldiers stand guard at the demarcation line of the joint security area and Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea in Panmunjom, near Kaesong.
SourceED JONES/AFP/Getty


These seasoned unofficial diplomats are maintaining ties through a roller-coaster ride of relations.

By Viola Gienger

The U.S.–North Korea relationship roller coaster took another stomach-churning loop on Thursday when President Donald Trump called off his much-anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. By Friday, the two sides were talking again. But Suzanne DiMaggio, an expert on U.S. relations with its adversaries, has seen this pattern before, and she has the quintessential plan B.

DiMaggio is part of a loose-knit brain trust of former U.S. officials and experts who keep unofficial channels open in hopes of another breakthrough down the road — or at least to forestall the most dangerous misunderstandings. DiMaggio, a senior fellow and director at the New America think tank in Washington, has led such talks for two decades on North Korea, Iran and Myanmar.

With the cancellation of the summit, it makes Track 2 all the more important and relevant.

Suzanne DiMaggio

One series between North Korean officials and nongovernmental U.S. representatives, for example, started in 2016. That took DiMaggio to Pyongyang twice and facilitated the first official discussions between the new Trump administration — then-U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun — and North Korean government representatives in Oslo in May 2017.

That face-to-face meeting led to further direct contacts. The following month, Yun won the release of American detainee Otto Warmbier after 17 months in North Korean detention. “Maintaining those channels for informal discussions is especially important during times when official channels stop or are in crisis,” DiMaggio said Thursday, shortly after Trump’s pullout. “That may very well be where we are now.”


DiMaggio, 53, came to this unofficial world in her first job out of college, working for the United Nations Association and greeting unofficial Soviet and then Russian delegations at the airport as the two sides navigated a tumultuous transition out of the Cold War. Hers is one of several simultaneous North Korea dialogue series. U.S. participants often coordinate or compare notes, and they meet periodically with current administration officials to make sure they understand official thinking. U.S. participants have to be careful not to engage directly with people in adversary countries who have been sanctioned.

These Track 2 dialogues generally involve no government officials on any side. If one side sends current officials, the talks morph into Track 1.5. Still, DiMaggio distinguishes between those and “back channel” talks that suggest the U.S. participants represent their government. Funding for these initiatives most often comes from private foundations, and European countries frequently provide support by hosting the talks.

“For me, the measure of success of whether a Track 2 is productive or not is the ability to sustain it over time, particularly during times of crisis,” DiMaggio said. “So now, with the cancellation of the summit, it makes Track 2 all the more important and relevant.”

Here are four more unofficial diplomats to watch as the coaster takes another turn.

Kathleen Stephens

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U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens talks with South Korean foreign minister Yoo Myung-Hwan on April 5, 2009, in Seoul, South Korea.

Source Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

A sighting in the Beijing airport in March set off a flurry of headlines worldwide within hours. A North Korean was boarding a flight to Finland and unnamed South Korean sources quickly confirmed that he was heading to a meeting with former U.S. officials and South Korean experts. Was this prep for the Trump–Kim summit? Who was going? What deals were they making?

Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens was the one American in the group whose name was leaked, and she’s been batting away speculation ever since that the talks were laying the groundwork for the summit. Instead, she says, it was part of an ongoing series of unofficial talks and she was invited to attend.

Stephens, 64, is no stranger to official negotiations. She was U.S. consul general in Northern Ireland during the talks for the Good Friday Agreement and was involved in multination talks that led to North Korea destroying a cooling tower in 2008, an earlier, short-lived show of sincerity. Now a fellow at Stanford, Stephens — the first female U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and the first to speak Korean — takes over as president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in September.

For the March talks in Helsinki, there had even been questions of whether the North Koreans would attend. “They did come and they engaged, I would say, in a positive and constructive way,” she said, declining to give specifics because the talks aren’t public.

Joseph DeTrani

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U.S. envoy Joseph DeTrani (right) attends a meeting at the Foreign Ministry on December 8, 2004, in Seoul, South Korea.

Source Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

Secret talks are routine for Joe DeTrani. He spent more than two decades at the CIA, and served in other top roles related to North Korea and nuclear weapons, including as special envoy to the multination talks conducted under President George W. Bush. As special envoy, he helped draft language for the September 2005 Joint Statement, wording that he heard again recently when the current North Korean leader suggested that he might give up nuclear weapons in exchange for normal relations with the U.S. and assurances that his country wouldn’t be attacked.

Since leaving government in 2012, DeTrani has taken part in a series of Track 1.5 meetings with North Korean participants who ranked as high as the vice foreign minister — now-foreign minister — Ri Yong Ho. “The last meeting was October 2017,” DeTrani, 70, said. “I’m prepared for further meetings if North Korea is interested.”

Bruce Klingner

To Bruce Klingner’s 20 years in the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, add a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do and a first-degree black belt in a couple of other Korean martial arts that most Americans wouldn’t recognize. He’s been at the Heritage Foundation think tank since 2007 and has participated in Track 2 and Track 1.5 talks with North Korea. His experience with the current Kim regime hasn’t left him encouraged.

Klingner was among the nonofficial U.S. delegation at a June 2017 meeting in Sweden with North Korean officials and representatives from Japan, China and South Korea. In an op-ed afterward for The Washington Post that was surprisingly forthcoming about discussions usually kept below the radar, he and his co-author concluded that “trying to talk to supreme leader Kim Jong Un is a waste of time.”

“We tried repeatedly to ascertain whether any combination of economic and diplomatic benefits or security reassurances could induce Pyongyang to comply with its previously negotiated commitments and with U.N. resolutions,” they wrote. “The answer was an emphatic, unwavering no.”

Robert Gallucci

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U.S. Ambassador Robert Gallucci (left) greets his counterpart, South Korean Ambassador Choi Dong-Jin, at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on May 9, 1995, before the U.S.–South Korean talks begin on the stalled deal to halt North Korea’s nuclear program.


One of America’s most distinguished diplomats and scholars, Robert Gallucci was chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, under President Bill Clinton. He helped draft the “Agreed Framework” that temporarily froze the country’s capacity to produce plutonium. In introducing Gallucci for a June 2017 podcast, The New Yorker’s David Remnick said a group of North Korean diplomats had recently told him that the former ambassador is the American who understands their country best.

After leaving government, Gallucci, 72, served as dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University for 13 years and as president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for five years. Among his many post-government ventures into Track 1.5 diplomacy with North Korea was a 2016 meeting in Malaysia. In December last year, Gallucci told Japan’s Kyodo news service that the Trump administration should begin “talks about talks” with North Korea to ease tensions that had soared with repeated tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Gallucci said he thought the regime would be open to a nuclear-free peninsula if it felt assured of its own survival. He had told Remnick that he was struck in the course of his talks by how accepting his North Korean counterparts were of the brutal nature of their totalitarian system.

“What North Koreans have told me flat-out on more than one occasion [is] what they worry about most is an American attempt to change their regime,” he told Remnick. “And they point to Iraq and to Libya.”

Consider it a memo to Trump and the official negotiators: Quit talking about the “Libya Model.”