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(5th LD) Top U.S. nuclear envoy arrives in N. Korea

All Headlines 16:39 June 21, 2007

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES with remarks from South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, reports of scheduled North Korea visit by Chinese foreign minister, additional information)
By Sohn Suk-joo & Byun Duk-kun

SEOUL, June 21 (Yonhap) -- The chief U.S. nuclear negotiator arrived in Pyongyang Thursday on a rare trip to North Korea to discuss implementation of a February deal on the North's denuclearization.

The trip by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill follows the North's recent invitation of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to discuss the shutdown of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon under the February agreement. Implementation of the accord stalled because of a financial dispute involving North Korean funds held at a Macau bank.

Hill flew out of a U.S. air base in Osan, south of Seoul, shortly after arriving here from Japan earlier Thursday, according to informed sources here.

The North's Korean Central News Agency later reported Hill and his entourage arrived in Pyongyang by air.

In a dispatch from the North Korean capital, the Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper published in Japan, said the U.S. officials were greeted by Ri Kun, a director in charge of U.S. affairs at the North's Foreign Ministry.

The trip will last until Friday, when Hill is scheduled to return to Seoul to brief his South Korean counterparts on his trip to Pyongyang, a Foreign Ministry official said, adding the U.S. envoy will then make a short stop in Tokyo to brief his Japanese counterparts before heading home.

Hill's North Korea trip was arranged last week when Pyongyang invited a group of negotiators from the IAEA to discuss the shutdown of the Yongbyon facility, the official said, asking not to be named.

Seoul officials said Hill is traveling as the chief U.S. negotiator in the nuclear disarmament talks, but noted the possibility of him carrying a special message from U.S. President George W. Bush, saying approval for his Pyongyang trip "must have come down from the highest office."

Seoul welcomed the U.S. envoy's trip, saying it expects the visit to help accelerate concrete steps to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, such as the initial steps of the Feb. 13 agreement.

"Also, the government hopes Assistant Secretary of State Hill's North Korea visit will help move forward the process of normalizing U.S.-North Korea relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong said in a statement.

North Korea is preparing to finally shut down the Yongbyon complex over two months after the April 14 deadline under the nuclear accord passed, as its US$25 million held at Banco Delta Asia has been released to it via an account at a Russian bank.

An unidentified North Korean diplomatic source was quoted as telling Russia's Interfax news agency Monday that the shutdown of the complex would take place in about a month or "in the second half of July."

Hill, eager to make up for lost time, urged the communist nation to speed up the process this week, saying it should only take "weeks, not months."

While traveling to Tokyo on Tuesday, Hill said his country wants to reopen the nuclear talks "immediately after the 4th of July."

Chun Yung-woo, South Korea's top negotiator in the talks that also involve North Korea, Japan, China and Russia, said Thursday that an informal meeting of chief delegates to the nuclear talks could be held in Beijing early next month.

"Informal six-way talks should be held first before July 10 to resume the formal six-way talks," Chun told Yonhap News Agency on South Korea's Jeju Island, where he was attending a regional peace forum.

A foreign ministry official, speaking to reporters in Seoul later, said such a meeting could be a gathering of only the chiefs of delegations and few other officials, "which are usually not open to the press."

In a related development, Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will visit North Korea on July 2-4 to discuss bilateral ties and "the six-party talks" process.

Hill is the highest-ranking official from the U.S. State Department to visit the communist nation since late 2002, when his predecessor, James Kelly, accused the North of running a clandestine uranium-based nuclear weapons program following a short trip to Pyongyang, triggering the fresh nuclear crisis.

The first North Korean nuclear crisis was wrapped up in 1994 when Pyongyang and Washington signed a Framework Agreement on freezing of the North's Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for energy aid, construction of two light-water reactors and other economic and diplomatic benefits.


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