Kushner helped open up back channel with North Korea

Katrina Manson
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens as President Donald Trump announces that the United States will designate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Jared Kushner opened up the back channel that led to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo's secret trip to Pyongyang and the breakthrough summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

A senior North Korean official who wanted to push for a shift in relations with Washington sought contact with Mr. Kushner last summer, two people familiar with the matter told the Financial Times.

The revelation underscores the highly unorthodox nature of Mr. Trump's White House, where family and personalized ties have shaped US foreign relations as part of the president's desire to chart an unconventional path in a bid to pull off big-ticket deals.

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"The North Koreans saw that Kushner had been instrumental in arranging the [April 2017] Mar-a-Lago summit with [Chinese president] Xi Jinping, and a senior North Korean official hoped he could pull off the same with Kim," one of the people told the FT.

The official contacted Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump's son-in-law and close adviser, via intermediaries after months of consideration about how to improve rapidly deteriorating relations between the two countries.

North Korean officials have spent months analyzing Mr. Trump and his personality. They concluded that unlike many leaders, he could be both dove and hawk at once, and that while the risk of war was high, genuine engagement might also pay off, said the people.

But the Pyongyang official deemed that only Mr. Kushner could be trusted to reach the president's ear. The official eschewed the state department, a more usual route for such diplomatic overtures, because he assessed America's top diplomat at the time, Rex Tillerson, was not an effective route.

"The North Korean regime is run around family, so it is normal for them to work that way, and the personnel in the Trump administration has changed so frequently that they felt a close family member such as Kushner was the ideal contact," said the person.

Mr. Kushner has often been criticized for overstepping his turf, where his unofficial portfolio has seen him take a role shaping US foreign policy from China to Mexico. He briefly lost his top-level security clearance for three months this year.

The people familiar with the matter say Mr. Kushner last summer accepted a meeting at the White House with one of the go-betweens, knowing only that the topic was North Korea.

The New York Times, which first reported the overture, said the intermediary was Gabriel Schulze, an American mining scion based in Singapore whose company invests in frontier markets. Thought to be the sole western investor in North Korea, his transactions were made before sanctions tightened under the Obama administration.

Mr. Schulze, who had previously met Mr. Trump's children Donald Jr and Ivanka when they were exploring real estate opportunities in Asia, requested a meeting with Mr. Kushner to discuss North Korea, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Schulze told him a senior North Korean official wanted to speak with Mr. Kushner directly and vouched for the official's credibility.

Mr. Kushner decided it would be inappropriate to pursue the opening personally and passed the information to Mike Pompeo, who was at the time director of the CIA. Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Trump's chief of staff John Kelly, former national security adviser HR McMaster and defense secretary Jim Mattis were subsequently briefed. Mr. Kushner never met or spoke with the North Korean official himself.

Mr. Pompeo used pre-existing CIA channels to make contact with the senior official. The opening was just one of several lines of effort from the US and South Korea to secure a breakthrough with Pyongyang. Mr. Pompeo made a secret visit to Pyongyang in April that helped lay the groundwork for last week's Trump-Kim summit.

Mr. Kushner, who declined to comment on this story, kept tabs on the situation after he passed on the contact, speaking to Mr. Pompeo to check the progress. "Kushner kept an eye on things from behind the scenes but Pompeo ran the show," said the person familiar with the matter. "Without Pompeo, none of this would have been possible and the summit would never have happened."

Despite a host of skeptical intelligence assessments, the Trump administration is hoping that Pyongyang might be ready for a genuine step-change in relations, which would include dismantling its nuclear weapons programme. Mr. Pompeo is due to meet a senior North Korean official in the coming days to discuss the next steps after the summit.

Mr. Schulze did not reply to requests for comment. The CIA and state department declined to comment.

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