Singapore-based US financier helped North Koreans open back channel to Trump govt

WASHINGTON • An American financier approached the Trump administration last summer with an unusual proposition: The North Korean government wanted to talk to Mr Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and senior adviser.

The financier, Mr Gabriel Schulze, said a top North Korean official was seeking a back channel to explore a meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who for months had traded threats of military confrontation. Mr 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, Mr Kushner appeared to be a promising contact. As a member of the President's family, officials in Pyongyang judged, Mr 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.

Mr Schulze's outreach was but one step in a path that led to last week's handshake between Mr Trump and Mr Kim in Singapore - a path that involved secret meetings among spies, discussions between profit-minded entrepreneurs and a previously unreported role for Mr Kushner, according to interviews with current and former American officials and others familiar with the negotiations.

In reaching out to Mr Kushner, the North Koreans were following the example of the Chinese, who early on identified the 37-year-old husband of Ms Ivanka Trump as a well-connected "princeling", someone who could be a conduit to Mr Trump and allow them to bypass the bureaucracy of the State Department.

Mr Schulze was taking advantage of an unusual opening in an administration where matters of policy and business often seem to blur. The overture by Mr Schulze, who had first met Trump family members several years ago when they were exploring business deals in Asia, came during a period of division inside the administration over how to deal with North Korea's growing nuclear arsenal, with some officials advocating a pre-emptive military strike.

Other figures besides Mr Schulze played important roles in bringing about the summit. But people familiar with the negotiations said his early contacts were useful in setting in motion the diplomacy that led to Singapore.

Mr 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 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the time, about Mr Schulze's outreach and requested that the agency be in charge of the discussions.

For Mr Schulze, the scion of a family that made billions in mining, a thaw in the US' 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 Obama administration imposed new economic sanctions in 2016. "I really believe that opportunity is found on the edge of our comfort zone," he told the Financial Times in 2013.

The White House and the CIA declined to comment on Mr Kushner's contact with Mr Schulze.

In a statement, Mr Schulze said: "I do not discuss the nature of my business or personal relationships."

NYTIMES

SEE EDITORIAL

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'US financier helped N. Koreans open back channel to Trump govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe