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Dec 6, 9:13 PM EST

As UN envoy visits, a look at N.Korea's diplomatic pipelines


AP Photo
AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon

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TOKYO (AP) -- North Korea's decision to hold talks with a senior United Nations official, who is also an American citizen and former U.S. diplomat, presents a rare opportunity for both sides to sound each other out in the increasingly isolated North Korean capital.

It may take a while to find out exactly what is being discussed during Jeffrey Feltman's visit this week. North Korea almost never discloses the details of its discussions with foreign delegations, and the U.N. says it doesn't plan to brief the media until after Feltman, its undersecretary-general for political affairs, completes his four-day visit.

Here is a look at other delegations North Korea has hosted recently, and some other ways it is engaging with the outside world that don't involve launching long-range ballistic missiles.

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THE CHINESE ENVOY - China last month sent its highest-level envoy in two years. His official mission was to brief North Korean officials on the outcome of the recent congress of China's ruling Communist Party. The official, Song Tao, visited as Chinese President Xi Jinping's special envoy. He met with Choe Ryong Hae, one of North Korea's most senior leaders after Kim Jong Un. China's relations with North Korea have deteriorated under Kim, who has ignored Beijing's calls to end the North's nuclear and missile tests and return to disarmament talks. The visit was seen as an effort by Xi to explore a new approach in relations and his desire to head off further pressure from Washington to take stricter action against Kim's nuclear program.

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WASHINGTON'S RESCUE - Efforts by the U.S. State Department to obtain access to four Americans held in North Korean jails, including secret talks in Norway, led to a mission by special envoy Joseph Yun in June to retrieve college student Otto Warmbier. Yun was allowed to travel to North Korea to bring back Warmbier, who had fallen into a coma and was in critical condition. Warmbier, who entered North Korea as a tourist, had been sentenced to 15 years for trying to steal a propaganda banner. He died just days after arriving bank in the United States. President Donald Trump declared a ban on most travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea because of Warmbier's case and concerns about Americans' safety.

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EXCHANGES WITH MOSCOW - Though it didn't get much attention in the West, Choe Son Hui, the head of the North America desk at North Korea's Foreign Ministry, traveled to Russia in September and attended a non-proliferation conference in Moscow in October. A Russian political delegation visited North Korea in early October, and the head of Russian state-owned news agency TASS visited North Korea for the 69th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

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OTHER CHANNELS - According to the U.S. State Department, Washington and Pyongyang do have a pipeline known as the "New York channel" for communication, though it's unclear how much either side has utilized it as tensions have ratcheted higher lately. Also, a trickle of low-profile delegations from around the world still arrive in the North Korean capital, while the North sends its own abroad.

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Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at erictalmadge.

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