By Balz Rigendinger
In public, threats. Behind the scenes, diplomacy and de-escalation. Switzerland has been negotiating between the United States and North Korea without fanfare but with success. This week a former US diplomat and a representative from North Korea spoke to each other in Montreux.
It was one of those meetings that happen from time to time: at the lowest level, during an international get-together, discreet and informal. Yet it is significant because it represents a moment of normality in relations between the North Korea and the US. These are more strained than ever, following a series of weapon tests in North Korea and threats from the White House. In times like these, even small steps are large.
The conference began on Monday; the UN Security Council had just imposed very tough sanctions on North Korea. The Japanese national public broadcasting organisation NHK reported that Evans Revere, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had spoken to Choe Kang Il, deputy director general for North American affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry. No details of the unofficial encounter were given.
On September 4, Doris Leuthard, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, explicitly offered Switzerland’s services in a mediating function to both states. One role for Switzerland, she suggested, could be as a suitable location for meetings.
“I think it’s our job to see what possibilities exist – Twitter won’t be an adequate instrument. This has to be very discreet,” she said.
Immediately after the conference, the conflict between North Korea and the US re-escalated. On Thursday, North Korea tested another missile which flew over Japan and had enough range to hit Guam, the US Pacific island territory and military hub. According to North Korea, the test was intended to “curb US belligerence”, the aim being a “balance of power” between North Korea and the United States.
On Friday, Choe Kang Il, on the way back from Switzerland, spoke to reporters in Beijing. He said the missile test was part of a plan to strengthen North Korea’s nuclear position. He added that North Korea would never remove its nuclear weapons and missiles from the negotiating table while the US expressed hostility towards North Korea and threatened the country with nuclear weapons.
Dialogue would only begin, he stressed, when the US abandoned its hostile policy and sanctions.
Asked what he and Revere had discussed in Montreux, Choe Kang Il repeated that North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programme was a self-defence measure. He recently told US network NBC: “The Trump administration would be well advised to rethink how it views North Korea.”
On Friday, after the most recent missile test, the US national security adviser HR McMaster said there was a “military option” for North Korea, adding that it was an option that the Trump administration did not want to employ.