Senior U.S. administration officials held secret talks in North Korea on at least three occasions in 2011 and 2012, The Asahi Shimbun has learned.
Although the visits had potential implications for Japan, Washington did not inform its security partner at the time and only informally confirmed one of them when the Japanese side pressed, government and other sources in Japan, South Korea and the United States said.
The U.S. State Department even warned the Foreign Ministry against making further inquiries, saying they would harm bilateral relations, the sources said.
U.S. military planes flew from an air base in Guam to Pyongyang and back on April 7, 2012, and again on a longer visit lasting from Aug. 18-20, the sources said.
It is believed that those aboard included Sydney Seiler, director for Korea at the U.S. National Security Council, and Joseph DeTrani, who headed the North Korea desk at the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. DeTrani left the post in May.
They met with North Korean officials and discussed policies following the death of leader Kim Jong Il in December 2011.
The North Korean delegation included Jang Song Thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and husband of Kim Jong Il’s sister. Jang is widely considered to serve as a mentor for Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father as his nation’s leader.
The Japanese government only learned about the flights after receiving reports from hobbyists monitoring activity at military bases and also analyzing air traffic flight plans.
When the Japanese side submitted an official inquiry, U.S. officials expressed frustration that the request had been made, citing the subject’s confidential nature. The State Department warned Japan against inquiring further, saying Washington-Tokyo ties could be damaged.
The third visit that The Asahi Shimbun has confirmed is one that took place in November 2011. Sources said at least one military aircraft from the Guam air base loaded heavy equipment, including bulldozers, at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo and flew to Pyongyang.
It is believed that the delegation included officials from the U.S. Pacific Command. They met with North Korean officials and discussed efforts to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, the sources said.
When Japan inquired about this visit, U.S. officials unofficially confirmed that it had taken place, the sources said.