The Cable

Obama softens his rhetoric on Syria

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama significantly scaled down his rhetoric on the Syria crisis, lowering the high expectations he set only a year ago.

"We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian," Obama said Tuesday.

But in his 2012 State of the Union Address, Obama made a bold prediction that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government would quickly come to the realization that change in Syria was inevitable.

"As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana'a to Tripoli. A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world's longest-serving dictators -- a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone," Obama said last year. "And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied."

He now seems have some doubt.

Obama's 2012 speech came only five months after he first declared that Assad had to go.

"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way," Obama said in a written statement in August 2011. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

Now, 18 months after that call, Assad remains in place and the civil war in Syria rages on, with an estimated 70,000 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. The Obama administration has resisted getting involved in the conflict other than through the dispersal of a limited amount of humanitarian aid.

The New York Times revealed recently that the White House decided not to arm and train elements of the Syrian opposition last summer over the objections of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

Obama did say Tuesday, "In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy."

"The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can -- and will -- insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people," he said. "And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month."

He didn't explicitly mention the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, though he did salute "the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk -- our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces."

Note: Obama made much stronger comments about the fate of the Assad regime in a video message released late last month. Here's what he said:

We're under no illusions.  The days ahead will continue to be very difficult.  But what's clear is that the regime continues to weaken and lose control of territory.  The opposition continues to grow stronger.  More Syrians are standing up for their dignity.  The Assad regime will come to an end.  The Syrian people will have their chance to forge their own future.  And they will continue to find a partner in the United States of America. 

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The Cable

State Department: North Korea warned us about nuke test

North Korea warned the State Department it would test a nuclear weapon, U.S. officials acknowledged Tuesday, but they refused to confirm explicitly that the warning came through what's known as the "New York channel."

Secretary of State John Kerry was not caught off guard by Monday's nuclear test, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday.

"As you know, there had been some reason to believe that the North Koreans might take this provocative step, so he had been briefed. He was well-prepared in advance," Nuland said.

Pressed by reporters to explain exactly how Kerry knew the test was coming, Nuland acknowledged that the North Korean government had given the State Department a head's up.

"The DPRK did inform us at the State Department of their intention to conduct a nuclear test without citing any specific timing prior to the event," she said.

Nuland declined to say when the warning was given, but South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea warned both Washington and Beijing about the test during the day on Monday.

Nuland also wouldn't say how the warning was conveyed. "It was our usual channel. Let's put it that way," she said. She added that the message was received "at the level that we usually deal with that channel at, which is sort of deputy desk director or manager for that account."

Reporters unsuccessfully pressed Nuland to admit that she was referring to what's commonly known in Asia policy circles as the "New York channel," which has been the method for the U.S. government to communicate with the North Korean government for decades.

A former U.S. official who worked on North Korea in past administrations described how the "New York channel" works in an interview Tuesday with The Cable.

"Basically what happens is, at North Korea's U.N mission in New York, there's a person there who is specially designated as the point of contact for the United States. All the other people there work on other issues," the former official said. "It's been the main channel of communication between the North Korean government and the U.S. government. We don't have any other channels we use."

That person is currently Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who also represented North Korea at two unofficial meetings with U.S. interlocutors in 2012 that were reported by The Cable, one in Singapore and one in Dalian, China.

Han and his small staff have been setting up so-called Track 2 meetings and passing letters between Pyongyang and Washington for years, but that's not his only job. He is also the lead North Korea official for dealing with any Americans who want to do business with North Korea. He links U.S. businessmen to North Korea contacts, he helped arrange the Google trip to North Korea last month, and he coordinates with NGOs who work in North Korea, the former official said.

So why is the State Department so reluctant to just admit what many people know: that the U.S. government uses the New York channel to talk to North Korea?

"They're afraid of their shadows," the former official said. "It's like ‘No one can know we are actually communicating with these people because they are bad.'"

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