North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Madame Choi Sun Hee has secretly met with U.S. officials in Pyongyang and European cities to establish a diplomatic channel and orchestrate the release of prisoners, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The recent release of American student Otto Warmbier, 22, in a coma might complicate relations amid a potential nuclear weapons standoff in the Korean Peninsula, according to the report.
"Given the reported status of Mr. Warmbier’s condition, any diplomatic path forward is going to be extremely difficult," New America Foundation's Suzanne DiMaggio told the WSJ.
DiMaggio helped establish an unofficial channel with the North Koreans early last year, termed "track two" because no active U.S. diplomat was a part of the meeting, per the WSJ.
"If the North Koreans immediately released the remaining three prisoners, it could set up an atmosphere for potentially serious talks," she added.
DiMaggio has worked to establish communications with other countries before, including Iran before President Barack Obama's controversial nuclear deal.
"[Mr. Warmbier’s] situation will temper the desire for dialogue for the time being," former Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who had met with North Koreans at a N.Y. steakhouse to discuss Warmbier's release, per the report. "I'm so unhappy and disgusted by what's happened to him."
Madame Choi, director-general of the North America affairs bureau of North Korea's Foreign Ministry, had herself been involved with nuclear weapons negotiations during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, U.S. officials told the WSJ.
"When track two participants meet with her, what they're getting is someone who can convey very accurately to us what the North Koreans want us to hear," former senior State Department member Robert Einhorn, who worked on North Korea in the Obama and Clinton administrations told the WSJ. "She's a valuable interlocutor because of her experience and connections."
The Obama administration had frozen direct contact with North Korea amid his "strategic patience."
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