Accessibility links

Breaking News

How US and North Korea Communicate Without Diplomatic Ties

A North Korean military guard post, background, and a South Korean post, front, are seen in Paju South Korea, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
How US and North Korea Communicate Without Diplomatic Ties
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:06:28 0:00

The United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic ties. But they still have ways to communicate.

An American official said that the U.S. government had reached out to the North to discuss a U.S. soldier who went into North Korea and was detained last Tuesday.

The Associated Press reported on some ways the nations could discuss Private Travis King. King is the first American held in North Korea in nearly five years.

Pink Phone

One of the most trusted ways for the U.S. to reach North Korea is through a light, pink-colored phone. The phone is at the U.S.-led U.N. Command at the Korean border village of Panmunjom. That is where King went into North Korea on Tuesday. The telephone line connects the officers on each side. The offices are reportedly only 40 meters apart.

Matthew Miller is a State Department spokesperson. He said Wednesday that the U.S. Defense Department tried to reach the North’s army but “those communications have not yet been answered.”

Observers say the U.S. likely used the “pink phone.”

In January, the U.N. Command said on social media that it had remained in contact with the North's army throughout 2022.

Moon Seong Mook is a retired South Korean military officer. He said North Korean officers appeared to be ignoring the calls made by the U.N. Command on orders from higher-level officers.

The reason for King’s border crossing is unclear. He was found guilty of assault in South Korea and could be discharged from the military and face other punishments.

New York mission

Miller said the U.S. maintains a number of channels to send messages to North Korea.

One of those is North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York. That mission has provided a way to have negotiations between the countries. It serves as a substitute embassy because the U.S. and North Korea do not have embassies in the other’s capital.

The mission played an important part in negotiating details for the meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019. At the start of their second meeting in Vietnam, both Kim and Trump said they supported the opening of a U.S. office in Pyongyang. But the idea was cancelled after negotiations broke down.

This family photo shows a portrait of American soldier Travis King displayed at the home of his grandfather Carl Gates, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Kenosha, Wis. (Family Photo via AP)
This family photo shows a portrait of American soldier Travis King displayed at the home of his grandfather Carl Gates, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Kenosha, Wis. (Family Photo via AP)

Swedish Embassy

Sweden does have relations with the North and an embassy in Pyongyang. It has offered consular services for U.S. citizens. That includes citizens who had been detained in North Korea on charges of illegally entering the country or spying.

Miller said State Department officials have reached out to Sweden about King.

But Sweden’s diplomats based in Pyongyang have not returned to the North since leaving the country because of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. Still, experts say North Korea’s Embassy in Sweden could be a place for communications.

Other channels

North and South Korea have a set of phone and fax lines of their own to set up meetings, plan border crossings and avoid accidental problems. But North Korea has not answered South Korean attempts to exchange messages using those methods since April. That was a time of high tensions over the North’s nuclear program.

Kim Yeol Soo is an expert at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs in South Korea. He said communication could happen through a hotline between the two Koreas’ spy agencies. South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Thursday that South Korea and the U.S. were in contact, without going into more details.

Kim Yeol Soo said North Korea will not answer the U.S. until it completes its investigation of King. After that, he expects negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the North Korean Foreign Ministry.

In the past, North Korea released U.S. civilian detainees after well-known Americans, including former presidents, travelled to Pyongyang to gain their freedoms. Kim said similar measures could be required in King's case.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting from The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

assault –n. (law) the crime of trying or threatening to physically attack someone else

discharge –v. to end someone’s service in the military

channel — n. a system used for sending information to another group