- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations — its longest-serving diplomat in the United States — is leaving his post early next month amid an impasse in nuclear negotiations with the North over its past illicit activities, U.S. and North Korean officials said.

Pak Gil-yon “has been recalled” to Pyongyang, an official at the North Korean mission in New York, who declined to give his name, said in a brief phone call. A successor has not been named, he said.

Diplomatic sources who have had recent contacts with Mr. Pak and his staff said that “recalled” was a “peculiar word” for the North Korean official to use because all indications are that the ambassador’s departure is part of a regular rotation of the North’s diplomats.

One source who met with Mr. Pak over the weekend said the North Korean told him that he “had a good farewell call on” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister.

“The fact that the call took place is further evidence, in my view, of the ‘normality’ of this transfer,” the source said.

It was not clear whether Mr. Pak, who is in his mid-60s, would retire upon his return to Pyongyang or take another assignment.

“That’s not unusual, since I know South Korean and Japanese diplomats who have left Washington or New York and not been told about their next posting until they got back to their capital,” the source said.

Another source noted that the name of Mr. Pak’s successor mentioned in the South Korean press is Shin Sun-ho, who is said to have worked at the North’s U.N. mission previously.

Mr. Pak has headed the mission for 19 of the past 24 years, even before North Korea became a U.N. member in 1991. Back then, the mission had an observer status.

He has played a key role in the so-called New York channel, which Washington has been using to communicate with Pyongyang because the two have no diplomatic relations. Most recently, the channel has been used to deliver messages regarding negotiations aimed at ending the North’s nuclear programs.

Although its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon has been almost disabled, the talks have stalled over Pyongyang’s refusal to address U.S. contentions about a secret uranium-enrichment program, as well as purported nuclear-related transfers to Syria.

U.S. diplomats, though, said Mr. Pak’s departure does not appear to be linked to the impasse.

A State Department official said there are other officials at the North Korean mission in New York whom the United States has been dealing with, and Mr. Pak’s absence will make no difference to future contacts.

Betsy Pisik reported from New York.

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