A New York "diplomacy practitioner" is the virtual US ambassador to North Korea

As President Trump and his national security advisers threaten war and downplay direct talks with North Korea, a specialist in diplomatic negotiations at a New York think tank is leading a group of former US officials who hold regular discussions with the Kim Jong Un government.

Suzanne DiMaggio, a “diplomacy practitioner” and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the convener of a North Korea Dialogue that involves about a dozen former US and European diplomats. They call their process “Track 1.5” because it involves North Korean officials on one side and representatives from non-governmental organizations on the other. Their last encounter was in late November in Stockholm.

Because the Trump administration has yet to engage in substantial negotiations with Pyongyang, DiMaggio has become a de facto ambassador for the United States. She and her fellow Americans in the 1.5 talks have held far more high-level meetings with North Korea than even Joseph Yun, the Trump administration’s designated diplomat for US dealings with Pyongyang.

In fact, their meeting last spring in Oslo became the first opportunity for Yun to meet with his North Korean counterparts since Trump came to office, and opened the door for Pyongyang’s release of an American student, Otto Warmbier, imprisoned in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, he was returned in a coma and died soon after, chilling the atmosphere for further direct US-North Korean talks.

But the unofficial talks have continued throughout the year. In October, DiMaggio shared a stage at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow with Madame Choe Son-hui, the head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s North America bureau. Choe, a key participant in DiMaggio’s Track 1.5 talks, is well established in the North as the daughter of the former vice premier for Kim Il-sung, the country’s first leader, and is said by several experts to have direct access to Kim Jong-un.

Based on her discussions with Choe and other North Koreans, DiMaggio and Joel Wit, a former US diplomat who has also participated in the 1.5 meetings, wrote in November in the New York Times that the North has entered “the last stage in the development of their nuclear force, implying that they have an endpoint in mind.”

After the North test-fired its giant Hwasong-15 rocket a few weeks later, Kim Jong Un announced that he had indeed “witnessed the accomplishment of the historic cause of the national nuclear program, the cause of building a missile power.” That led many analysts to the conclusion that he was now ready for talks and, as he has pledged, to refocus attention on his country’s beleaguered economy.

“I see that [statement] as a potential opening we should aggressively pursue,” DiMaggio told a recent forum on North Korea at the Arms Control Association in Washington. “I would make the case that Kim Jong-un has staked his credibility, not only on nuclear development but also on economic development.”

Suzanne DiMaggio, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation

Kim’s announcement, she added, provides a rare opportunity for both sides “to now come to the table from a position of strength.” The upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, may provide the United States with an opportunity to “tone down” its military exercises with the South and create the atmosphere for talks, she said – a possibility that’s already being considered in Washington and Seoul.

In early December, Newstapa interviewed DiMaggio on the phone from her office in New York. Here are the highlights of the interview.


DiMaggio is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an Italian father. She developed her expertise in negotiations working with organizations affiliated with the UN, including the United Nations Association of the USA. In 2002, she began facilitating what became a high-level US-European dialogue with Iran, and eventually served as the coordinator of the informal talks that led to the sweeping nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015.

Towards the end of those talks, which involved officials at a “quite high level,” DiMaggio was approached through “third parties” by North Korean diplomats who had heard about that work. “It seemed like a good time to get involved,” she told me. “I brought to the table my own experience with the Iranians, and years of dialogue” that helped her define “best practices and lessons learned.”

She added: “For this type of work, it’s difficult to be so public.” But the sudden shift in Washington discussions about the potential for a “preventive war” with North Korea – as proposed by H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, prompted her to speak out.

“That’s one reason I’ve become more vocal and talked about the detail of the dialogue. The public discussion has been dominated by a point of view that didn’t bear any relevance to what we are hearing” from the North Koreans.

DiMaggio says her public proposals, which she has put together after meeting with Madame Choe and other officials, are designed to move the Trump administration “from its dithering approach to a real strategy” for North Korea. Its key points include postponing Trump’s ultimate goal of denuclearization in Korea and using a combination of security guarantees and economic incentives to persuade Kim to freeze his nuclear and missile program where it stands now.

“They will not negotiate on denuclearization,” said DiMaggio. “But they understand that the US would insist on it being on the agenda even though they’re not ready to discuss it.”

The United States, she says, must also consider North Korea’s security concerns by finding ways to end the US “hostile policy” that North Korea continually invokes to rationalize its nuclear-weapons program. Specifically, Pyongyang points to US sanctions, its massive military exercises with South Korea, and the US arsenal of nukes aimed at North Korea.

“These are potentially negotiable points,” she said, and “not in the realm of the impossible. They present a way forward.” Even with sanctions, the North Koreans “are smart enough to know it would take concessions” to remove them. “That’s the essence of negotiations.” As for the US-South Korean military exercises that the North continually points to, she calls the potential US steps “adjustments” – “not stopping the exercises, but certainly finding a way to tone them down. And of course economic incentives would be another thing to offer.”

Once the conditions for an initial freeze are set, according to this scenario, the two sides could then decide on the key issues they would tackle for a broader peace agreement as envisioned by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. That would set the stage for a negotiated process that would allow Kim to shift his focus from military development to raising living standards for North Korea’s 25 million people.

Eventually, with North Korea’s security assured - under guarantees backed in part by China - Kim Jong-un could roll back his program. In other words, in DiMaggio’s view, denuclearization should remain a long-term objective, but the immediate focus must be what is achievable now.

That is also the view of William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense, who came close to launching cruise missiles at North Korea’s Yongbyong nuclear facility in 1994. But six years later – after North Korea froze its program – he negotiated an agreement that would have ended Pyongyang’s missile program and led to a US-North Korean non-aggression treaty. But it was never signed due to opposition from the incoming Bush administration. “I believe we could have averted today’s outcome if we’d concluded that agreement in 2000,” he says now.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry


The strategy outlined by DiMaggio and Perry runs directly against Trump’s (and Moon’s) “maximum pressure” of sanctions and military power until Pyongyang buckles under and agrees to negotiate away its nuclear weapons. It also counters the emerging doctrine from McMaster, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and their supporters that conventional deterrence, as practiced for years against Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons, will not work against North Korea.

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said DiMaggio’s work is essential because the confrontation with North Korea has reached such a dangerous phase. “There’s a growing chorus in this town that wants to go to war,” Cirincione told me. “There are people who believe we have a real military option, that we can launch limited strikes or a massive first strike, and we could win a new Korean War. This is incredible, immoral, and insane, yet we still may do it.”

That’s why DiMaggio’s talks are important, he said. “What Suzanne does is to say, ‘Look, we have options here, there’s a diplomatic opening, the North Koreans want to talk,” he said. “Let’s not shut them off or insist on preconditions that we won’t negotiate unless they surrender. That won’t work.”

Through its own actions and threats, he added, the Trump administration “has created this crisis,” he said. “It’s not like the Japanese fleet is steaming toward Pearl Harbor and war will be upon us no matter what we do.” The risks of war are growing, he said, “not because events are driving us but because US policy is.”

That’s exactly what DiMaggio is trying to reverse. President Trump “presents a binary choice: complete capitulation on our part, or we have to take them out,” DiMaggio says. “The longer that we delude ourselves that there is a viable military option, the longer the current course of escalation will persist and the greater the chances of this spiraling into military conflict, either by design or by miscalculation.”

“I have a simple philosophy,” she concluded. “Negotiating with the enemy is extremely difficult, but it's not impossible.”