A former US diplomat is visiting North Korea to “test the waters” for diplomacy

Working diplomacy.
Working diplomacy.
Image: Reuters/Mark Garten/United Nations
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A visit to North Korea this week by a top United Nations official is something of a landmark affair. Jeffrey Feltman, the chief diplomat and undersecretary general for political affairs at the UN, will be in Pyongyang from today (Dec. 5) until Friday (Dec. 8) for political discussions (paywall). It’s the highest-level visit in more than six years, and takes place with the region on edge over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Yesterday (Dec. 4), the US and South Korea began their largest-ever joint aerial drills, prompting Pyongyang to say that the war games could push the Korean peninsula to “the brink of nuclear war.” That followed North Korea firing its third intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29, one capable of reaching all of the US.

The visit by Feltman comes in response to an invitation by North Korean officials made on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN in New York in September, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. Feltman will meet with North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho and vice minister Pak Myong-guk, but not supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Feltman previously served in a US diplomatic position that, under Donald Trump, the State Department is in no rush to fill. His official title was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. That’s one of the many diplomatic posts that has gone unfilled under the watch of secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who has set about unraveling the State Department (paywall) since assuming office in February. There are over 20 assistant secretary of state positions, but most of them remain unfilled. Another vacant spot is US ambassador to South Korea, a seemingly essential position given the tensions with North Korea, though Trump is expected to appoint former White House official and Korea expert Victor Cha to the position.

Feltman served as the US ambassador to Lebanon, before taking on his current role at the UN in 2012. He is also from Ohio, the home state of American university student Otto Warmbier, who died after 17 months of detention in North Korea having been detained over an alleged attempt to steal a propaganda poster in his hotel.

Asked about the unfilled positions at the State Department, Trump told Fox News last month:

“So we don’t need all the people they want. I’m a businessman, and I tell my people, ‘When you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.’ But we have some people that I’m not happy with there. Lemme tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

The Trump administration has said it favors a diplomatic solution but that it would never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. It’s warned that all options, including military ones, are on the table. Trump meanwhile has made bombastic threats against Kim, calling him “little rocket man” and saying North Korea would be met by “fire and fury” if it continued to threaten the US. North Korea has called Trump “mentally deranged” and a “dotard.”

Amid all this, many have called for greater efforts at diplomacy. For example, after Trump’s “fire and fury” comment, German chancellor Angela Merkel said she believes that talks with North Korea are the way forward. She said in September that the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers could serve as a model for negotiations, and that her country would be eager to help in such talks.

Feltman’s trip is a way to “test the waters,” a UN representative told the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

An official with the State Department told Reuters it was “aware” of Feltman’s visit, but added that the Kim regime “has shown no interest in credible negotiations” and said it’s “imperative that the countries of the world present North Korea with a unified, unambiguous response to its unlawful provocations.”