N. Korea nuclear envoy to visit U.S. on heels of deal

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SEOUL (AP) — In another sign of warming relations between two wartime foes, a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator will attend a security conference in the United States, a person with knowledge of the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Word of Ri Yong-ho’s visit to the forum at Syracuse University, where he also may meet on the sidelines with U.S. officials, comes on the heels of a breakthrough agreement that will provide much-needed U.S. food aid to North Korea in exchange for a rollback of its nuclear programs.

The agreement announced Wednesday sets in motion a plan laid out by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il before his death in December: to improve relations with the U.S. and to get back to six-nation disarmament-for-aid negotiations. Significant challenges remain, however, in achieving the long-term goal of the U.S. and other nations: to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear ambitions altogether.

First, diplomats need to iron out the tricky logistics of distributing, and monitoring, the 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid earmarked for hungry North Korean children. They also need to work out a timeline for the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors tasked with verifying whether Pyongyang sticks to its promises.

And while the deal paves the way for unprecedented exchanges with the U.S., North Korea still must confront the complicated matter of improving relations with rival South Korea, still smarting from two deadly incidents in 2010 that Seoul blames on Pyongyang.

Kim Kye-gwan (left), North Korea's first vice foreign minister, is greeted by Ri Yong-ho, a vice minister in the North's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at Pyongyang's airport on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. Mr. Ri, who is in charge of the North's nuclear negotiations, is heading to the United States next week on the heels of a breakthrough nuclear agreement with the U.S. (AP Photo)

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Kim Kye-gwan (left), North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, is greeted by ... more >

Still, there was cautious hope that North Korea’s relations with the U.S. and its allies have turned a corner after years of tensions. The agreement calls on Pyongang to suspend uranium enrichment and place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

In a possible sign of things to come, Mr. Ri, North Korea’s vice foreign minister and envoy to nuclear disarmament negotiations, has been cleared to travel to the U.S. to attend the Syracuse forum, according to the person with knowledge of the arrangement. A second person with information about Mr. Ri’s itinerary also said the envoy would be attending the forum.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because Mr. Ri’s travel plans have not been formally announced. The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, but the measures laid out in the deal announced Wednesday include facilitating “people-to-people” exchanges.

The deal is a sign that the foreign policy laid out in the final years of Kim Jong-il’s rule — with improved relations with the U.S. as a key goal — will be carried out by his young son Kim Jong-un. Shortly before Kim Jong-il’s death was announced, the AP reported that a deal similar to the one announced this week was imminent.

A return to negotiations before the end of the semiofficial 100-day mourning period suggests stability and continuity during the closely watched transition of leadership in North Korea.

In Pyongyang, a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry told the state-run Korean Central News Agency that the steps are confidence-building measures designed to improve relations between North Korea and the U.S.

The U.S. and North Korea fought on opposite sides of the Korean War and signed an armistice to end the fighting in 1953. They have never signed a peace treaty, and the U.S. has some 28,000 troops protecting ally South Korea.

The agreement announced Wednesday was finalized last week during talks in Beijing. It opens the way for international inspections for the North’s nuclear program, which has gone unmonitored for years.

Outsiders have been watching how Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, handles nuclear diplomacy with the United States and delicate relations with South Korea. His consolidation of power, with the help of senior advisers who worked with his father and grandfather, appears to be going smoothly, although determining the intentions and internal dynamics in Pyongyang is notoriously difficult.

North Korea faces tough U.N. sanctions that were tightened in 2009 when it conducted its second nuclear test and launched a long-range rocket. In late 2010, Pyongyang unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons in addition to a plutonium-based program.

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