Turtle Bay

North Korea’s Shadow Ambassador Arrives In The U.S. — But Does He Have Any Power?

There’s a new North Korean in New York City. Jang Il Hun, a former interpreter and career diplomat, arrived in New York in recent days to take up his new post as the North Korean representative of the so-called "New York Channel," a diplomatic conduit set up in the early 1990s to manage relations between ...

Getty Images News/ Chung Sung-Jun
Getty Images News/ Chung Sung-Jun

There’s a new North Korean in New York City.

Jang Il Hun, a former interpreter and career diplomat, arrived in New York in recent days to take up his new post as the North Korean representative of the so-called "New York Channel," a diplomatic conduit set up in the early 1990s to manage relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

While the North Korean diplomat’s arrival has gone largely unnoticed by most in Turtle Bay, it has fueled intense interest among American diplomats and regional experts trying to assess what the new appointment says about North Korea’s intentions. Is he, for instance, an important enough player in the North Korean political firmament to portend a new era in relations? Or is he simply a diplomatic drone sent here to gather information about American political developments and to exchange the odd message from Pyongyang?

Opinions are divided. In contrast to his predecessor, Han Song Ryol, Jang was not recruited from North Korea’s America division, which has managed U.S. relations for decades. Instead, Jang has served as a more traditional career diplomat, serving as North Korea’s envoy to Grenada at one stage and as a diplomat in the North Korean mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

That resume, according to one source who met with him recently, suggests that Jang may have scant influence among North Korea’s key policy makers on American matters. But another insider said that Jang, who speaks English fluently, has been long linked to U.S. North Korean peace efforts, noting that he served as the interpreter during talks in the early 1990s that led to the establishment of the 1994 Framework Agreement, which bound North Korea to freeze its plutonium enrichment program. The accord unraveled after 911, but subsequent efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to revive the pact have not stuck.

But  an American with contacts at the North Korean mission said the influence of Pyongyang’s envoy in New York doesn’t matter if the leadership is not committed to diplomatic talks.  "The New York Channel is not a function of who is in the job at the U.N.," said the official, who declined to speak on the record. "If there is nothing happening in U.S-DPRK relations or if relations are particularly bad, it doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans in New York are plugged in or not."

The United States and North Korea have not had formal diplomatic relations since the Korean War, and Pyongyang has no representatives in Washington. But President Clinton set up the New York channel to help arrange high level visits by dignitaries from the two countries, and to begin the hard work of gradually building diplomatic trust. The North Korean representative works out of the North Korean mission to the United Nations, and periodically meets in secret with American officials. He is, in effect, Pyongyang’s shadow ambassador to the United States..

But the New York channel was largely downgraded after 9/11, when President George W. Bush used his January, 2002, State of the Union address to designate Pyongyang a member of the Axis of Evil. It was briefly exploited during Bush’s second term, when U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill restarted nuclear talks with Pyongyang. But the channel has served as little more than a diplomatic P.O. Box during the Obama administration, whose periodic attempts at engaging Pyongyang have been met with provocative acts, including nuclear tests, repeated ballistic missile launches and a midget submarine attack that killed 46 seamen.

Jang’s appearance coincides with a push by Pyongyang to restart talks with the United States.

Last week, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Sin Son Ho, called on the U.S. to engage in political talks, but he struck a combative tone, describing America’s military presence in South Korea as the "root of evil." Sin urged the U.S. to end economic sanctions on Pyongyang, and appealed to other U.N. members not to "blindly" follow America’s pressure campaign on North Korea.

As I wrote Friday, Evans Revere, a former State Department official who oversaw relations with the North Korean’s New York delegation, said he believes that Pyongyang is pursuing a diplomatic opening with the U.S., South Korea and Japan because of mounting pressure from China to do so. But he sees little hope of a breakthrough, noting that the North Korean have made clear publicly and privately that they are not interested in dismantling of their nuclear weapons program. "They don’t want to focus on denuclearization," Revere said. "The offer they made the other day, and the rhetoric in public and private, suggests that for a number of reasons they feel compelled to offer negotiations and talks but they really don’t want to talk about what the United States and others want to talk about."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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