WASHINGTON -- An American financier approached President Donald Trump's administration last summer with a proposition: The North Korean government wanted to talk to Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser.
The financier, Gabriel Schulze, said that a top North Korean official was seeking a back channel to explore a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who for months had traded threats of military confrontation. Schulze, who lives in Singapore, had built a network of contacts in North Korea on trips he had taken to develop business opportunities in the isolated state.
For some in North Korea, which has been ruled since its founding by a family dynasty, Kushner appeared to be a promising contact. As a member of the president's family, officials in Pyongyang judged, Kushner would have the ear of his father-in-law and be immune from the personnel changes that had convulsed the early months of the administration.
Schulze's quiet outreach was but one step in a circuitous path that led to last week's handshake between Trump and Kim at a colonial-style island hotel in Singapore -- a path that involved secret meetings among spies, discussions between profit-minded entrepreneurs, and a previously unreported role for Kushner, according to interviews with current and former American officials and others familiar with the negotiations.
In reaching out to Kushner, the North Koreans were following the example of the Chinese, who had early on identified the 37-year-old husband of Ivanka Trump as a well-connected "princeling," someone who could be a conduit to Donald Trump and allow them to bypass the bureaucracy of the State Department.
Other figures besides Schulze played important roles in bringing about Trump's summit with Kim, not least South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, who mediated tirelessly between the two leaders. But people familiar with the negotiations said Schulze's early contacts were useful in setting in motion the diplomacy that led to Singapore.
Kushner did not play a direct role in back-channel negotiations with North Korean officials, according to people familiar with the matter. He instead notified Mike Pompeo, the CIA director at the time, about Schulze's outreach and requested that the agency be in charge of the discussions.
It is unclear why Kushner thought the CIA -- rather than the State Department -- should take the lead, though he had an antagonistic relationship with Rex Tillerson, who was the secretary of state at the time, and a good rapport with Pompeo. It is also unclear whether Kushner's lack of a permanent top-secret security clearance at the time was a factor in his decision not to have a direct role.
The White House and the CIA declined to comment on Kushner's contact with Schulze.
For Schulze, the scion of a family that made billions in mining, a thaw in the United States' relationship with North Korea would be potentially lucrative. His firm, SGI Frontier Capital, adopts a high-risk strategy of investing in so-called frontier markets -- Ethiopia, Mongolia and elsewhere. He did a number of small deals in North Korea before the President Barack Obama administration imposed new economic sanctions in 2016.
Schulze is not the only person who has offered to act as a broker for talks between the United States and North Korea. More than a dozen people approached the State Department during the past year with claims to have connections to people high in the North Korean government, according to current and former officials. Most led nowhere, and some diplomats are doubtful that any were truly consequential.
Meanwhile, Trump on Sunday pushed back against criticism that he gave too much ground to Kim at last week's summit, saying the U.S. "got so much" out of the meeting, including the return of American citizens.
The president also defended his decision to halt military exercises with South Korea in the region, writing that the so-called war games can start again if a deal isn't reached with North Korea.
"Holding back the 'war games' during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation," Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning. "Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!"
The agreement signed by Trump and Kim in Singapore last week did not lay out a timeline for the denuclearization of North Korea, nor did it provide details of how the U.S. would verify North Korea's compliance.
Lawmakers in both parties have described the meeting as a first step toward negotiating a lasting peace agreement.
But some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, have derided the meeting as more of a photo opportunity than one of substance. The president responded to Schumer on Sunday.
"Chuck Schumer said 'the Summit was what the Texans call all cattle and no hat.' Thank you Chuck, but are you sure you got that right?" Trump wrote on Twitter, possibly taking a dig at his fellow New Yorker for mangling the expression, which derides something or someone as being "all hat and no cattle."
"No more nuclear testing or rockets flying all over the place, blew up launch sites. Hostages already back, hero remains coming home & much more!" Trump added.
Information for this article was contributed by Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler of The New York Times and Arit John of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 06/18/2018
Print Headline: N. Korea sought Kushner's sway