The US has periodically sent envoys to Pyongyang in the past, despite the lack of diplomatic relations, but Bosworth's trip will be the first such mission since Barack Obama entered the White House in January.

Confirmation of Bosworth's visit comes as the US president prepares for a tour of Asia, which includes a visit to South Korea on November 18.

Consultation

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PJ Crowley, a US state department spokesman, said the decision to send a delegation to the North was made after "careful consideration and extensive consultation among our allies and partners".

"Ambassador Bosworth's discussions in Pyongyang will take place in the context of the six-party talks," he said on Tuesday, adding it was "not the beginning of a bilateral dialogue that is separate from the six-party process".

"This meeting is about returning North Korea to the six-party process and getting a commitment from them to take the kinds of affirmative steps that were called for in the 2005 joint statement," he said.

Crowley added that the aim was to ensure that Pyongyang reaffirms "the September 2005 joint statement of the six-party talks including verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner".

Under the 2005 deal, North Korea pledged to give up its nuclear arms and programmes and adhere again to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in return for aid and an end to its international isolation.

Tuesday's announcement also comes amid heightened regional tensions after a North Korean patrol boat was set ablaze in an exchange of fire with South Korea's navy on the same day.

The two sides blamed each other for the clash, the first in seven years, near the disputed western sea border in the Yellow Sea.

Following the clash the White House issued a statement warning against any actions that could be seen as an "escalation" of the cross-border tensions.