Glasser: Thank you. I’m Susan Glasser, welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I’m absolutely delighted to be joined this week by Suzanne DiMaggio, from the New America Foundation, and Joel Wit, who is founder of perhaps the leading North Korea watcher website, 38 North, and a scholar here at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. More importantly for the purposes of today’s conversation, both of them have been engaged for a long time in what we call “Track 2” conversations with North Koreans, and with this North Korea issue.
So, for folks in the foreign policy world, they know what I’m talking about when we say Track 2 negotiations, but for the rest of the world it just sort of adds to the secrecy and mystery. How do you talk to a country that’s isolated from the rest of the world? One of the ways you do that are—quote/unquote—Track 2 conversations. Suzanne, can you tell us what that means to non-foreign policy wonks?
DiMaggio: Yes, it is very wonky, I know. I apologize for that. So Track 1 simply means government-to-government relations; those are normal interactions between governments. Track 2 is between usually nongovernmental individuals, and in this case there is no Track 1, and very little Track 1, as a matter of fact, so Track 2 can play an important role in being a bridge for communication. Track 2 is especially useful with those countries where we don’t have official relations, and North Korea would fall into that category.
Glasser: Probably the most pointed example of it. So, you two wrote a fascinating piece, giving us a little bit of a window into that. You’ve met with North Koreans over the last year in Geneva, in Pyongyang, in Oslo—this wasn’t part of it, but I saw, Suzanne, that you also tweeted about a recent meeting in Moscow where you were able to talk to North Koreans. I wonder if both you and Joel can just set the scene for us a little bit.
What does it mean to have these conversations? Who was in the room? How do you know whether they really represent the viewpoints of the government in North Korea? Tell us a little bit about what it’s actually like to sit down at these meetings.
Wit: That’s a really good question, and the way I like to think of it is, there are a number of essential ingredients for a good Track 2 meeting, and one of those ingredients is making sure you have the right North Koreans in the room, because every North Korean isn’t worth talking to, honestly. So, you need North Koreans in the room who work in the government, are involved in making policy on relations with the United States, and particularly, the whole issue of dealing with their WMD program. And also, most of them have years of experience. So, if you have them in the room, at least you’re able to conclude that you’re having a useful conversation.
Glasser: So, these were useful conversations, in your view, over the last year, even in the middle of this escalating rhetoric?
Wit: Oh, yeah. Well, in the room it’s not threat and counter-threat. In the room, what you do—and this is going to sound strange to people—is you can essentially brainstorm with the North Koreans. If they know you, if they’re comfortable with you, if you’re not trading threats, you can exchange ideas on how to move forward and away from the confrontation we’re in now, towards a more peaceful relationship, and to deal with the issues that separate us. So, it’s not threat and counter-threat; it’s not a clash of civilizations. It’s an exchange of ideas.
Glasser: What are the ideas that you are hearing from them this year in the context of a president who has taken a very different public approach to North Korea?
DiMaggio: Well, after Trump was elected president, of course, we received many questions from the North Korean side about what will his policy be, what direction will he likely go in, and that was something we explored with them. Of course, we didn’t have the answers, but we had some ideas.
But what’s interesting, as we wrote about recently, is very early on, the North Koreans conveyed that they saw a new administration as a potential fresh start. The relationship with the Obama administration had turned so sour, especially after the U.S. sanctioned Kim Jong Un personally. That really blew the relationship out of the water. So at that time, the North Koreans already had started looking ahead to the new administration. I think they and we assumed that that would be a Hillary Clinton administration, so I think they were equally surprised.
But, based on my conversations with them immediately after the inauguration, when I traveled to Pyongyang to meet them, they were very clear that this could be a new beginning. They certainly didn’t have any illusions that things would be easy, but I think they were willing at least to consider the idea of talks with the United States without preconditions at that time.
Glasser: But that’s changed now, do you believe, because of all the rhetoric?
DiMaggio: It’s unclear right now. My most recent interaction with the senior North Korean diplomat, which happened in Moscow just a few weeks ago—she left the door open to talks with the United States. She had some thoughts on what would need to happen in order for that to take place, but it was a narrow opening, and I think that’s the way we should interpret it. She made it very clear that they are on a mission to complete their nuclear program to the point where they have a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM that can reach U.S. soil. They’re on their way to accomplishing that.
So, the real question is, will …read more
Read more here: Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel Wit : The Full Transcript