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U.S.-North Korea Summit Could Lead To Creation Of 'Liaison Offices'


This week's summit could lead toward more normal relations between the U.S. and North Korea. There's been talk of opening liaison offices. Those are diplomatic posts that are more limited than full embassies, and they've been tried before, as we hear now from NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Clinton administration came close to opening up a liaison office in Pyongyang. Robert Gallucci says it was one of the plans that came out of nuclear negotiations he led in the 1990s.

ROBERT GALLUCCI: And we moved pretty far down the road to doing that, as in looking for real estate, and we found our place. They didn't, by my recollection, find their place here. We, it's called, fenced off our foreign service officers who would serve in a liaison office. It just didn't happen.

KELEMEN: There were many reasons it didn't happen. The U.S. didn't want to upset its ally South Korea by moving too quickly, and it wanted to be able to get to an office in North Korea from Seoul.

GALLUCCI: We, of course, would like to have had a good linkage between Seoul and Pyongyang, and I remember that was an issue, too.

KELEMEN: If President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decide to open up liaison offices, it could happen quickly, says James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state and special envoy who helped reopen the U.S. embassy in Kabul after the Taliban was toppled. In that case, the Afghans wanted the Americans there, and the U.S. had the infrastructure.

JAMES DOBBINS: We had an embassy building there, which had been vacant when I entered it. It still had pictures of Henry Kissinger on the wall, half-smoked cigars in the ashtrays and half a bottle of scotch on the bar in the basement.

KELEMEN: In Pyongyang, Dobbins says, the two sides would have to start from scratch.

DOBBINS: So you need a site. You need an agreement which provides diplomatic immunity to your personnel and to the site. You need some agreement on the scale of the offices.

KELEMEN: Currently, Sweden is the protecting power of the U.S. in Pyongyang, meaning that Swedish diplomats are the ones who help when Americans get into trouble in North Korea. A liaison office would be a step above that and the State Department says a precursor to the establishment of embassies and full diplomatic relations. Dobbins, who is with the RAND Corporation, expects it would be a sought-after assignment for foreign service officers - at least at first.

DOBBINS: How exciting it remained would depend on, you know, whether the two sides make use of these missions. If they do, then obviously it continues to be exciting. If they don't, if the relationship goes back into the refrigerator, then it could be pretty boring and sterile.

KELEMEN: Diplomats of other Western countries have described how limited their access is in North Korea. They live on compounds with other foreign diplomats and can't travel without permission. Still, retired ambassador Lino Gutierrez says it's always good to have diplomats on the ground, as the U.S. did in Cuba for many years before the embassies were reopened in 2015.

LINO GUTIERREZ: There's no substitute for having the person on the field who can tell us exactly what's going on, even if they don't have access to the top levels of government.

KELEMEN: North Korea does have one diplomatic post in the U.S. at the United Nations headquarters in New York. But those diplomats also can't travel, even to Washington, without U.S. permission. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.