SEOUL — The chief U.S. nuclear envoy made a rare trip to North Korea today in a surprise bid to accelerate international efforts to press the communist government to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill's trip came ahead of the expected resumption of six-nation talks next month following the resolution of a key financial dispute that had blocked progress.
The trip is Mr. Hill's first to North Korea and also the first by a U.S. nuclear envoy since the latest crisis with the North over its nuclear development began in late 2002.
Associated Press Television News footage showed Mr. Hill arriving at Pyongyang's airport in a small jet in a steady downpour. His five-member delegation was met by Ri Gun, the North's deputy nuclear negotiator.
"We want to get the six-party process moving," Mr. Hill, standing under an umbrella, said in the APTN film. "We hope that we can make up for some of the time that we lost this spring and so I'm looking forward to good discussions about that."
Mr. Hill and Mr. Ri were shown walking together and chatting in a friendly manner.
"We're all waiting for you," Mr. Ri said. In response, Mr. Hill said he "got the message on Monday, and we had to work fast to find an airplane," suggesting that the visit was arranged hastily and based on a North Korean invitation.
North Korea, which carried out its first nuclear test explosion in October, promised in a landmark agreement struck in February with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. that it would shut down its bomb-making nuclear reactor at Yongbyon by mid-April.
Progress was stalled by the financial dispute between Pyongyang and Washington involving $25 million in purported illicit North Korean funds. That dispute was resolved in recent days, and although North Korea still hasn't shut the reactor, it invited U.N. monitors next week to discuss a shutdown.
Last year, North Korea openly invited Mr. Hill to visit the country, but Washington did not accept the offer.
"I think the U.S. is trying to keep North Korea from dragging its feet any longer" now that the banking dispute is resolved, said Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea expert at Korea University. "Unless something is done right now, North Korea could stall for time on another pretext."
Mr. Nam said the North appears to want to reaffirm concessions it would get from Washington before it closes down and seals the reactor, including removing North Korea from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Mr. Hill planned consultations today and tomorrow on the nuclear issue "to move the process forward," the State Department said.
Visits to the North by high-ranking U.S. officials are extremely rare. The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations. Mr. Hill's unexpected trip was the first since one by his predecessor as assistant secretary in October 2002.
The highest-ranking U.S. official ever to visit North Korea was former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who met the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, in late 2000.
Mr. Hill was to meet with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan to discuss advancing the six-party process, the State Department said. Mr. Hill was to return to South Korea on Friday and then travel on to Japan on Saturday.
South Korea welcomed Mr. Hill's visit as "efforts to build mutual trust" between the U.S. and the North and expressed hope that it would prompt concrete steps toward the North's denuclearization.
China, which sponsors the six-party talks, said its foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, would visit the North on July 2 through 4.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said today, however, that a date for the next round of six-party talks has yet to be set.
Mr. Hill had said in Tokyo that he would like the next round to be held after July 4. He said in Seoul that he expected the Yongbyon reactor to shut down in a matter of weeks.
U.N. nuclear inspectors were expected to travel to North Korea on Tuesday to prepare for the first International Atomic Energy Agency inspection since the agency's experts were expelled from the country in December 2002.
Under the deal reached in February with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, North Korea pledged to shut down its Yongbyon reactor, its main processing facility, in exchange for energy and economic aid.