Donald Trump’s tough talk on North Korea is making the headlines, but the United States is taking a more diplomatic approach behind the scenes.

After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” earlier this week, the president escalated the tension Friday with a tweet that the American arsenal is “locked and loaded.” The semantics appear to be rhetorical, since U.S. nuclear experts have called Trump’s claims of a more powerful nuclear program “baseless” and “absurd.” Meanwhile, U.S. senior diplomat Joseph Yun has spent months conducting back-channel diplomacy with Pyongyang.

The Associated Press reports that Yun is the only U.S. diplomat in contact with representatives of the North Korean government. Yun and North Korean diplomat Pak Song II negotiated the release of imprisoned American college student Otto Warmbier in June. But unnamed sources told the AP that the talks have done little to quell concerns about North Korea’s escalation of its missile and nuclear program, though the sources also suggested that negotiation could still be possible, if Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un publicly choose negotiations instead of threats.

The president tweeted on Wednesday that “we’ll always consider negotiations,” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Yun seem concerned about keeping lines of communication open. “We have other means of communication open to them, to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk,” Tillerson said at an Asian security meeting in the Philippines this week, adding that negotiations would be welcomed on the condition that North Korea stops testing missiles that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland—a major concern, given that North Korea has significantly advanced its weapons program since the last serious negotiations with the U.S.

The AP continues:

Any negotiation would face huge skepticism in Washington given North Korea’s long record of broken promises. The last serious U.S.-North Korea negotiations collapsed in 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket that derailed an agreement of a North Korean nuclear freeze in exchange for U.S. food aid.

North Korea’s weapons program has developed significantly since then. As a result, its price in any such negotiation is now likely to be far higher. At a minimum, Pyongyang would renew its long-standing demands for an end to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises—which are set to resume this month—and an eventual peace treaty with Washington. …

… Trump has been widely accused of injecting a new element of unpredictability and even chaos into U.S. policy toward North Korea, especially with his tweets and proclamations this week. It’s unclear what effect they may have on the back-channel contacts being maintained by Yun.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also have encouraged a peaceful resolution to the tensions. Despite his tweet about diplomacy, President Trump has ramped up his rhetoric, according to The Hill:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

“He [Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” he continued.

North Korea responded with a specific threat, saying it would attack the waters around the U.S. territory of Guam.

Trump doubled down Thursday on his warning to North Korea.

“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf club.

“They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries.

Neither the White House nor the State Department commented on Yun’s communication channel, and a diplomat at North Korea’s U.N. mission confirmed to the AP only that the channel had been used to negotiate Warmbier’s release. Warmbier, 22, was held in North Korea for 17 months and returned to the U.S. in a coma June 13. He died within days.

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