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.'"
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.