BERN, Switzerland – North Korean government officials have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Donald Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un's regime.
The outreach began before the current eruption of threats between the two leaders, but will likely become only more urgent as Trump and Kim have descended into name-calling that, many analysts worry, sharply increases the chances of potentially catastrophic misunderstandings.
"Their No. 1 concern is Trump. They can't figure him out," said one person with direct knowledge of North Korea's approach to Asia experts with Republican connections.
There is no suggestion that the North Koreans are interested in negotiations about their nuclear program, and the Trump administration has made clear it is not interested in talking right now.
But to get a better understanding of U.S. intentions, in the absence of official diplomatic talks with the U.S. government, North Korea's mission to the United Nations invited Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is now the Heritage Foundation's top expert on North Korea, to visit Pyongyang for meetings.
Trump has close ties to Heritage, a conservative think tank that has influenced him on everything from travel restrictions to defense spending., although not to Klingner personally.
"They're on a new binge of reaching out to American scholars and ex-officials," said Klingner, who declined the invitation.
North Korean intermediaries have also approached Douglas Paal, who served as an Asia expert on the national security councils of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They wanted Paal to arrange talks between North Korean officials and American experts with Republican ties in a neutral place such as Switzerland. He also declined the request.
North Korea has about seven such invitations out to organizations that have hosted previous talks — a surprising number of requests for a country that is threatening to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S.
Over the past two years in particular, Pyongyang has sent officials to hold meetings with Americans — usually former diplomats and think-tankers — in neutral places such as Geneva or Singapore.
They are referred to as "Track 1.5" talks because they are official (Track 1) on the North Korean side but unofficial (Track 2) on the American side, although the U.S. government is kept informed of the talks.
But since Trump's election, the North Korean representatives have been predominantly interested in figuring out the unconventional president's strategy, according to almost a dozen people involved.
Early in Trump's term, the North Koreans had been asking broad questions: Is Trump serious about closing American military bases in South Korea and Japan, as he said on the campaign trail? Might he really send American nuclear weapons back to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula?
But the questions have become more specific. Why, for instance, are Trump's top officials, notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, directly contradicting the president so often?
"There are a number of theories about why North Korea is doing this," said Evans Revere, a former State Department official. "My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the U.S. is going. … They haven't seen the U.S. act like this before."