US discussing exchanging liaison officers with North Korea

The US and North Korea are seriously considering exchanging liaison officers, an incremental step towards building formal diplomatic relations, two sources with knowledge of the discussions told CNN.

News of the discussions comes days ahead of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s second summit, which is set to take place in Vietnam at the end of the month.

Trump and Kim met in Singapore last year, and both leaders there signed a joint statement that included commitments from each country “to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”

This statement left the door open to some kind of re-establishment of formal relations if things were to go well, the sources said, adding that the current stalemate has left North Korea expecting some significant gesture on the part of the US.

The two high-level diplomatic sources said the first step forward could be the exchange of officers. On the US side, sources said there would be several liasion officers sent to set up office in North Korea, led by a senior foreign service officer who speaks Korean, if this plan were to move forward.

The State Department declined to comment to CNN.

A similar agreement was made back in 1994, with the “Agreed Framework” leading to extensive negotiating over exchanging liaison offices in each country, beginning with up to seven officers in each. At the time, the US even went so far as to sign a lease for space in the German mission. North Korea also looked at possible sites in Washington, DC.

But by the end of the following year, North Korea canceled the whole plan, thought to be because of tensions after a US helicopter was shot down when it crossed over the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea, at the end of 1994.

Significant step despite inaction on nuclear weapons

The talks, while still preliminary, could mark a significant step in the US-North Korea negotiations and yet another departure from the saber-rattling that defined the early Trump-Kim relationship — all without key steps on the part of North Korea to denuclearize.

As North Korea continued to test its nuclear weapons through Trump’s first year in office, each side threatened the other, until Trump agreed to meet with Kim to discuss the North Korean nuclear program.

While North Korea has continued to pause its nuclear tests and rhetoric between the two nations has softened, satellite imagery has shown North Korea expanded a key long-range missile base and continued activity at its weapons sites.

The top US commander on the Korean Peninsula told the Senate earlier this month that there has been “little to no verifiable change” in North Korea’s military capabilities since Trump’s first summit with Kim. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats likewise told the Senate late last month that North Korea would “seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”

Trump officially announced the second summit at his State of the Union address earlier this month, touting his administration’s efforts while noting “much work remains to be done.”