America in SECRET TALKS with Kim? US official makes shock admission

As tensions threaten to reach breaking point on the Korean peninsula, the US is quietly pursuing direct diplomacy with North Korea, a senior State Department official has admitted. 

The admission is in stark contrast to US President Donald Trump’s public assertions that such talks are a waste of time.

But Joseph Yun, a US negotiator with North Korea, has been in contact with diplomats under the so called “nuclear channel” at Pyongyang’s United Nations mission, the official said.

The New York channel is one of the few conduits the US has for communicating with North Korea, which has itself made clear it has little interest in serious talks before it develops a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the continental United States.

A State Department official said among the points Mr Yun has made to his North Korean interlocutors is to “stop testing” nuclear bombs and missiles.

It comes at a time when an exchange of sabre-rattling insults between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has fuelled fears of World War 3. 

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on October 17 he would continue “diplomatic efforts … until the first bomb drops.” 

But Mr Yun’s official’s comments were the clearest sign the US is directly discussing issues beyond the release of American prisoners, despite Mr Trump having dismissed direct talks as pointless.

There is no sign, however, that the behind-the-scenes communications have improved a relationship vexed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and the death of US university student Otto Warmbier days after his release by Pyongyang in June and the detention of three other Americans.

Word of quiet engagement with Pyongyang comes despite Mr Trump’s comments, North Korea’s weapons advances and suggestions by some US and South Korean officials that Mr Yun’s interactions with North Koreans had been reined in.

Mr Yun said: “It has not been limited at all, both in frequency and substance.” 

This year, North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear detonation and has test-fired a volley of missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that, if perfected, could in theory reach the United States mainland.

The possibility that Pyongyang may be closer to attaching a nuclear warhead to an ICBM has alarmed the Trump administration, which in April unveiled a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” that has so far failed to deter North Korea.

At the start of Mr Trump’s presidency, Mr Yun’s instructions were limited to seeking the release of US prisoners.

A State Department official said: “It is now a broader mandate than that.” 

However, when Mr Trump spoke at the UN on September 19, he vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim threatened the US or its allies, raising anxieties about the possibility of military conflict.

Days later, after Mr Tillerson said Washington was probing for a diplomatic opening, Mr Trump said on Twitter his chief diplomat was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” – his mocking nickname for the North Korean leader.

It comes as Mr Trump prepares for his first presidential trip to Asia amid tensions on the home front as Democratic US senators introduced a bill on Tuesday they said would prevent the President from launching a nuclear first strike on North Korea on his own.