President Trump and Secretary Tillerson are at odds on diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). Secretary Tillerson emphasized that the US has “three channels open to Pyongyang,” and that the two sides are talking. President Trump says the secretary is “wasting his time,” causing other officials to reconcile the comments by stating that the US was getting impatient as lines of communication had been open for months. Regardless of the inconsistent messaging, these comments from Secretary Tillerson are a significant signal that reveals overlooked opportunities for a “humanitarian channel” of engagement between the two countries.
Earlier this summer, the administration also acknowledged that the direct line of communication, which facilitated the release of imprisoned UVA student Otto Warmbier, remained open after his return. The direct line between the DPRK ambassador to the UN Pak Song II and the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun is the only confirmed direct channel of communication between the two countries. However, the implication of Tillerson’s comments is that he may be counting indirect or unofficial lines of communication as “channels.” These indirect lines likely include communication between former US officials or veterans of the US foreign policy corps and their North Korean contacts.
What Tillerson may not have included are those closer to the ground, such as humanitarian organizations that often serve as telegraphing instruments vis-à-vis the layers of permissions, approvals, and negotiating that come with the territory of US organizations operating in the DPRK. Even including this oft-overlooked humanitarian link in Tillerson’s tally, the number of channels are not much more than three. And that’s a serious problem. Given the current climate of threats and potential for miscalculation between the US and DPRK, every last fiber in the diplomatic cable matters.
With so little communication and such high stakes, Washington ignores the humanitarian channel to the DPRK at its own peril. Currently operating assistance programs are having enormous impacts on the lives of ordinary North Koreans, and these programs often unearth viable opportunities in bilateral relations.
For instance, I work for the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that currently has an agricultural program that is helping to improve food security for up to 72,000 North Koreans. Although this impact alone is a sufficient case for humanitarian work, the on-the-ground and consistent nature of these programs creates a space in which US and North Korean organizations can identify opportunities for engagement.
In 2016, participants on an AFSC delegation were able to assess the feasibility of the US government conducting exchange programs with the DPRK. In the past, such exchange programs have served as a precursor to rapprochements between the US and…