BERN, Switzerland — North Korean government officials have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Donald Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The outreach began before the current threats, but will likely become only more urgent.
“Their No. 1 concern is Trump. They can’t figure him out,” said one person with direct knowledge of North Korea’s approach to Asia experts with Republican connections.
At a multilateral meeting here in Switzerland this month, North Korea’s representatives were adamant about being recognized as a nuclear weapons state and showed no willingness to even talk about denuclearization.
But to get a better understanding of American intentions, in the absence of official diplomatic talks with the U.S. government, North Korea’s mission to the United Nations invited Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is the Heritage Foundation’s top expert on North Korea, to visit Pyongyang for meetings.
Trump has close ties to Heritage, a conservative think tank, but not to Klingner personally.
“They’re on a new binge of reaching out to American scholars and ex-officials,” said Klingner, who declined the North Korean invitation. “While such meetings are useful, if the regime wants to send a clear message, it should reach out directly to the U.S. government.”
North Korean intermediaries have also approached Douglas Paal, who served as an Asia expert on the national security councils of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
They wanted Paal to arrange talks between North Korean officials and American experts with Republican ties in a neutral place such as Switzerland. He also declined the request.
North Korea has about seven such invitations out to organizations that have hosted previous talks — a surprising number of requests for a country that is threatening to launch a nuclear strike on the United States.
Over the past two years, Pyongyang has sent officials from its foreign ministry to hold meetings with Americans — usually former diplomats and think-tankers — in neutral places.
But since Trump’s election, the North Korean representatives have been predominantly interested in figuring out the president’s strategy, according to almost a dozen people involved in the discussions. All asked for anonymity to talk about the sensitive meetings.
Early in Trump’s term, the North Koreans had been asking broad questions. But the questions have since become more specific. Why, for instance, are Trump’s top officials, notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, contradicting the president?
“The North Koreans are reaching out through various channels and through various counterparts,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official dealing with North Korea who is a frequent participant in talks.
“My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going, so they’re trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington,” Revere said. “They haven’t seen the U.S. act like this before.”
Revere attended a multilateral meeting with North Korean officials in the Swiss village of Glion this month.
The North Koreans at the meeting displayed an “encyclopedic” knowledge of Trump’s tweets and quoted them back to the Americans present.
“They may be puzzled about our intentions but they have a very clear set of intentions of their own,” Revere said.