SEOUL, South Korea – The chief U.S. envoy to North Korean disarmament talks wants to visit the communist country for further discussions after Pyongyang agreed in a landmark accord this week to abandon its nuclear program, a South Korean official said Thursday.
South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young (search) said he relayed a message to the North about the possibility of the U.S. envoy, Christopher Hill (search), visiting. He said he delivered the request during last week's inter-Korean Cabinet-level talks in Pyongyang.
"Should Hill's visit to the North be realized, it would serve an opportunity to further solidify the outcome of the six-party talks," Chung told a parliamentary committee.
The latest six-party nuclear talks produced a landmark accord Monday in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid, security assurances and improved ties with the United States.
North Korea (search) since has fallen back on some of its hardline rhetoric, raising questions about the sincerity of its commitment. The country said Tuesday it will not dismantle its nuclear program unless Washington gives it civilian nuclear reactors to generate power.
Hill was in Seoul on Sept. 12 for last-minute strategy talks before flying to Beijing the following day for the latest round of six-party talks. At the time, he met Chung, who departed for the North the following day.
After the Beijing talks ended, Hill said he was willing to visit North Korea to keep channels of communication open, but many factors would determine whether he would visit.
The mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Thursday that some U.S. officials with hard-line views on the North opposed a Hill visit. But if he can overcome those objections, his trip could come next month ahead of the next scheduled round of six-nation talks, it said.
The paper, South Korea's largest, cited an unidentified South Korean government official as saying Hill showed a "strong desire" to visit the North and "consult directly" with Kim on U.S. efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Washington has consistently refused one-on-one talks, saying efforts to get the North to renounce nuclear weapons are a regional issue for the talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. U.S. officials have met directly with North Koreans in connection with those talks.
North Korea has long tried to engage the United States in bilateral talks in hopes that such meetings would boost its international status and help it win bigger concessions.
However, there would be no guarantee the North Korean leader would not demand to meet with a higher-ranking official.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said only of the report: "Nothing has changed."
Monday's joint statement represented an about-face to Washington's long-held position of not "rewarding bad behavior" by North Korea. U.S. officials previously refused to discuss concessions for North Korea until it disarms.
But Washington joined other parties in the talks Monday in expressing "willingness to provide energy assistance" to the North.
South Korea estimates it will cost as much as $15 billion to finance the energy aid promised to North Korea, Chung said. The aid will come in three stages beginning with heavy oil supplies, electricity provision and finally reactor construction over a period of up to 13 years, he said.
The United States assented to eventually discussing the provision of civilian nuclear reactors for North Korea, a demand Hill rejected a week earlier.
The nuclear dispute flared in October 2002 after U.S. officials raised allegations North Korea was pursuing a secret nuclear arms program using highly enriched uranium in violation of earlier promises.
In February, the North publicly claimed it had nuclear weapons, but it has not performed any known tests that would confirm it can make them. Experts have said they believe the North is capable of building about six bombs.