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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The Cable

Hagel will need 60 votes to get confirmed as defense secretary

The Senate Armed Services Committee was set to approve the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense Tuesday, but several Republican senators told The Cable they will insist he receive 60 votes on the Senate floor before he is confirmed.

The committee debated the Hagel nomination in anticipation of a Tuesday afternoon vote that is expected to fall along party lines, with all committee Republicans voting against the nomination. After the committee acts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is expected to call for a final floor vote on Thursday, just before the Senate goes on vacation. Several GOP senators told The Cable Tuesday that they will not agree to a simple up or down vote on the Senate floor this week, including Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican James Inhofe (R-OK), Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

(UPDATE: The committee approved Hagel late Tuesday by a 14-11 vote that fell along party lines.)

Inhofe's demand for 60 votes is related to his overall objection to Hagel becoming defense secretary, which is based on Hagel's past record on issues ranging from Iran, Israel, Hamas, and cuts to the defense budget. Inhofe also wants Hagel to further disclose financial records related to his past speeches.

"We're going to require a 60-vote threshold," Inhofe told The Cable.

Cornyn told The Cable, "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable that he is confident Hagel can avoid a filibuster.

"If there's a filibuster, I think there will be more than 60 votes to stop a filibuster," Levin said.

Levin is adding up the 55 Democrats in the Senate, all of whom are expected to support Hagel, with the two Republicans who support Hagel, Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Mike Johanns (R-NE), and the senators who have pledged not to filibuster Hagel, such as McCain.

Inhofe insisted that his demand for a 60-vote threshold is not a "filibuster." Inhofe said he will object to unanimous consent for a simple majority vote, which will prevent Reid from bringing the Hagel nomination to the floor without first filing for cloture, which requires 60 votes to proceed to a final vote.

"It's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word," Inhofe said.

It may be a distinction without a difference, but it's a distinction that GOP senators like McCain are prepared to embrace. McCain has repeatedly said he is opposed to filibustering Hagel but told The Cable Tuesday that he would vote against a cloture vote this week if the White House doesn't provide the information he has requested on the president's actions the night of the Benghazi attack.

"We need to know what the president's conversations were," McCain said. "I would vote no [on cloture] on Thursday [unless the information is provided]."

Graham is also opposed to a "filibuster" of Hagel, but told The Cable today he would place a "hold" on the Hagel nomination after the committee vote.

"I think the president has stonewalled the Congress on Benghazi. I think a lot of people are worried that we don't have all the information on Chuck Hagel," said Graham. "I'm not inclined to filibuster. I'm going to hold him and Reid is not going to not honor my hold and try to hold the vote on Thursday."

Senate aides told The Cable that the earliest Reid could call for a cloture vote would be Wednesday, according to Senate rules. That would set up a final vote for Friday, unless there were unanimous consent to move the vote up to Thursday. If the vote doesn't happen by Friday, it would be delayed until after the President's Day recess.

Graham said that if Reid is able to force a Senate floor vote on Thursday, he is optimistic that the GOP caucus will hold ranks and prevent cloture from being invoked, which would delay the final vote.

"I hope our colleagues will say they are pushing a controversial nominee too fast," said Graham. "I think our caucus believes that having cloture on Hagel this soon with this many unanswered questions and the Obama administration stonewalling the Congress is inappropriate by Harry Reid."

Ultimately, most senators said that eventually Hagel will receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate and when that happens, he is expected to come out on top.

"I would think at some point he will be confirmed," Johanns told The Cable.

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