For weeks, the escalating back-and-forth between North Korea and the United States over possible nuclear conflict had made for headlines that were alarming at the least _ and to many, terrifying.
Amid all the bluster came an exclusive report from Matthew Pennington, foreign policy reporter in Washington, revealing that senior U.S. and North Korean diplomats have been maintaining a back-channel communication for the last several months, and that they'd moved on from an early focus on U.S. detainees to address the broader strains in the relationship.
At a time of heightened alert, the story pointed to a possible diplomatic path out of the crisis, and indicated that both U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be more flexible on the idea of negotiations than they are letting on. After days of bombastic threats from both sides, Pennington's reporting, which wins the Beat of the Week, provided a sobering reality check: the enemies aren't on an unavoidable path toward conflict.
The immediate goal of the diplomacy was to win the freedom of U.S. detainees in North Korea
Pennington, who has written about U.S. policy on North Korea since 2011, first got a sense of the quiet diplomacy from his wide network of sources in Washington.
Multiple people told him that the Trump administration had sought to restore the back channel of communication shortly after coming into office. The immediate goal of the diplomacy was to win the freedom of U.S. detainees in North Korea.
The administration revealed those diplomatic contacts after it secured the release of a university student, Otto Warmbier, who died soon after being returned home in June. But while others turned away from the story, Pennington stuck with it. He began piecing together an under-the-radar process that hadn’t been made public and could yet provide a path out of the nuclear crisis, even as U.S. and North Korean leaders were trading threats of nuclear confrontation.
The final piece was confirmation from within Trump’s administration of ongoing, regular communication between the U.S. envoy for North Korea and a diplomat at that country’s U.N. mission since Warmbier’s release. Pennington learned the discussions also encompassed the deteriorating U.S.-North Korean relationship.
One official who spoke noted his appreciation of Pennington’s thoughtful, analytical coverage of the current standoff – coverage that has delved beyond the sometimes glib Twitter declarations and state-media propaganda.
Pennington’s story received tremendous attention in the U.S. and abroad. Bloomberg quickly tweeted it. Reuters cited AP in the headline of a pickup it did. MSNBC ran a banner citing AP and mentioned it in numerous segments. It also interviewed Pennington on the network. Fox News also noted the story prominently, and interviewed Pennington's editor, Brad Klapper. (The two appeared almost simultaneously at mid-afternoon on Friday, putting AP on the screens of America's two biggest cable news networks.) Trump fielded a question on the back channel at a highly publicized photo spray on Friday.
BBC, The New York Post, The Hill and others all credited AP with the scoop. Politico and The Washington Post recognized AP in follow-up pieces over the next days. Suddenly, media that weren't even aware of the back channel were writing stories about Trump's quiet support of diplomacy or warning about his rhetoric threatening the possibility of the negotiating process.