North Korea's top nuclear negotiator will reportedly make a rare visit to the United States next month, amid renewed diplomatic efforts to bring Pyongyang back to six-nation disarmament talks.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency citing an unidentified source in Beijing said the visit by Kim Kye-gwan would follow-up on a visit by Stephen Bosworth, the US special envoy, to North Korea last December.
Kim, who is and also the country's vice-foreign minister, has been in Beijing since early this week for discussions with Chinese counterparts on how to restart nuclear negotiations.
"I believe the schedule for Kim's visit has already been fixed," the Yonhap report quoted the source as saying. No precise date was mentioned.
The report comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity and visits, suggesting a renewed push to revive the stalled six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations hosted by China.
A meeting between the Kim and US officials would send a strong signal that efforts to get the disarmament talks back on track were gaining traction.
"[We shared a] deep exchange of views ... on issues of interest, including China-North Korea relations, signing of a peace treaty and resumption of the six-party talks"
Kim Kye-gwan, North Korean nuclear envoy on Beijing meeting
It could also signal a thaw in relations between the US and North Korea, wartime rivals that do not have diplomatic relations.
Earlier, the US state department said US officials had not ruled out future meetings with the North Koreans.
PJ Crowley, a state department spokesman, however said that Washington believed future talks should take place within the six-nation framework.
"We believe firmly that the next meeting that US representatives and others should have with North Korea is through a formal six-party meeting," he told reporters.
North Korea quit the talks last April, a month before its second atomic weapons test.
The rush of diplomacy raised hopes of a breakthrough on restarting the negotiations after Kim Jong-il assured a high-level Chinese envoy on Monday that his government is committed to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
South Korea, Japan and the US have all urged the North to return to the disarmament talks and show progress on denuclearisation before any discussions on a peace treaty or sanctions.
But this week's meetings in Beijing have been hard going, according to reports, with Pyongyang sticking to its demands that UN sanctions be lifted before it rejoins the nuclear dialogue.
|US negotiator Stephen Bosworth visited North Korea last December [Reuters]
The North also wants US agreement to hold talks about a formal peace treaty before it comes back to the six-party talks.
The negotiations, hosted by Beijing, bring together envoys from China, Japan, Russia, the US and North and South Korea.
Yonhap said Wu Dawei, China's chief nuclear negotiator who has been meeting Kim, plans to travel to other six-party member nations after the lunar new year celebrations this weekend, adding that the two sides were trying to narrow differences on economic assistance.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday about the meetings, Kim said he and Wu shared a "deep exchange of views ... on issues of interest, including China-North Korea relations, signing of a peace treaty and resumption of the six-party talks".
Meanwhile Lynn Pascoe, the political advisor to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, is due to conclude a mission to North Korea on Friday aimed at reviving the nuclear talks.