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(LEAD) Senior N. Korean diplomat set for talks with U.S. experts in Europe

All Headlines 18:51 November 15, 2016

(ATTN: FIXES Choe's title in 2nd para with her reported promotion; UPDATES last 3 paras)

SEOUL, Nov. 15 (Yonhap) -- A senior North Korean diplomat is set to hold talks with United States experts in Europe, but the meeting is nothing out of the ordinary, the foreign ministry here said Tuesday.

"Our government is aware of the North Korean foreign ministry Director for North American affairs Choe Son-hui's layover at Beijing en route to a European country where a (non-governmental) track-two meeting with U.S. experts is reportedly scheduled," ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said in a press briefing.

The official's comment comes in response to a Kyodo News report earlier in the day that said Choe arrived in Beijing to head to Geneva for the bilateral talks.

Observers here said the rare meeting would help North Korea explore the U.S. North Korea policy direction under the incoming Donald Trump administration, including possibly Pyongyang's chance for negotiations with Washington over its nuclear program.

"Any track-two talks between the U.S. and North Korea are non-governmental level talks that have nothing to do with the U.S. government," Cho stressed, dismissing the allegations of official North Korea-U.S. talks. "This kind of track-two meeting has often taken place in the past and is not meaningful by any measure."

Seoul and Washington unwaveringly share the stance that any talks with North Korea in the absence of the North's intention for denuclearization would only help justify the communist country's bad behavior, he also said, reaffirming the allies' concerted hard-line policy.

"Our government has been forming a shared understanding with President-elect Donald Trump's diplomacy and security personnel that strong sanctions and pressure should continue against North Korea," he noted.

The rare U.S.-North Korea contact comes less than a month after another group of U.S. experts met with Choe's predecessor.

A two-day non-governmental meeting last month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, brought Han Song-ryol, North Korea's former North American affairs director, and his delegation face-to-face with a four-member U.S. delegation that included Robert Gallucci, the lead negotiator for a landmark 1994 nuclear freeze deal with Pyongyang, as well as former U.S. deputy nuclear negotiator Joseph R. DeTrani.

But Washington later downplayed the talks as an unofficial event devoid of any U.S. government involvement, reiterating the official government stance that there will be no talks until Pyongyang demonstrates its denuclearization commitment.


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