SEOUL, South Korea – The top U.S. envoy to disarmament talks with North Korea arrived in the communist country Thursday in the first high-level visit by a U.S. official there in more than 4 1/2 years.
The surprise trip by nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill followed the resolution this week of a banking dispute that had held up progress toward disarmament for more than a year, and the announcement that U.N. nuclear monitors would visit the communist nation next week.
The trip is Hill's first to North Korea, as well as the first by a U.S. nuclear envoy since the latest crisis with the North over its nuclear development began in late 2002.
Hill arrived in the North Korean capital Thursday afternoon, APTN reported.
He was visiting Pyongyang for consultations Thursday and Friday with his North Korean nuclear counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, in order "to move the process forward," the State Department said in a statement.
The statement said Hill will reinforce the importance of the need to move swiftly to fulfill all the commitments that were made as part of a Feb. 13 disarmament agreement.
"It is critical for the six parties to make up for lost time to restore momentum to achieving our agreed common goal, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," the statement said.
The State Department said Hill would then brief other nuclear envoys involved in the talks in Tokyo on his way back to Washington.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki also told reporters in Tokyo that Hill would visit North Korea on Thursday. Shiozaki said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the visit with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso by telephone Thursday morning.
Earlier Thursday, Hill told reporters that the United States hopes the next round of nuclear negotiations will take up matters other than inspections of the North's Yongbyon reactor and the banking dispute that had held up the talks.
About $25 million in North Korean funds had been frozen at Macau's Banco Delta Asia after the institution was blacklisted by the United States over allegations of money-laundering and other financial crimes. North Korea had refused to dismantle its nuclear facilities until the money was freed, and the U.S. only recently approved the release to help end the standoff.
"We don't want to have ... a six-party meeting when we're again discussing the shutdown of the Yongbyon facility. When we meet ... we'd like to be discussing something besides BDA and something besides the shutdown," said Hill, who is wrapping up a trip through the region.
On Wednesday, Hill said the U.S. expected diplomats to start planning the shutdown of North Korea's nuclear facilities within the next two weeks, with a full meeting of the top nuclear envoys resuming soon after July 4.
U.N. nuclear inspectors were expected to travel to North Korea on Tuesday to prepare for the first IAEA 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.