North Korea Invites U.S. Nuclear Negotiator to Visit Pyongyang

North Korea on Thursday invited the chief U.S. nuclear envoy to visit the communist nation if Washington proves its commitment to an agreement last year in which the North pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has previously expressed a desire to visit the North if it would help the six-nation arms negotiations, although he has said many factors would determine if such a trip could be made. The nuclear talks have been stalled since last year.

Country Watch: North Korea

"If the United States has made a political decision to truly carry out the joint declaration, (we) again invite the head U.S. delegate in the six-party talks to visit Pyongyang and directly explain (it) to us," an unnamed spokesman for the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The joint declaration refers to a September agreement where the North pledged to abandon its nuclear development for aid and security guarantees. No progress has since been made on implementing the pact, and the arms talks haven't been held since November.

If the U.S. "is reluctant even to sit face to face with the other party while talking about resolving significant issues like the nuclear issue through talks, (it) won't be able to find any solution to the problem forever," the North said.

"The United States is shunning contacts with us, although six parties made an agreement in November to actively seek bilateral and multilateral contacts to create an atmosphere necessary" to holding more arms talks, the spokesman said, adding that the North was committed to its earlier pledge.

In Oct. 2000, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the North — the highest-level American official ever to travel to the country. The two nations don't have formal diplomatic relations.

The United States had previously been engaged in direct talks with North Korea that led to a 1994 agreement on halting the North's nuclear development in exchange for getting two nuclear reactors and other aid. But U.S. officials say the North admitted in late 2002 to a new secret uranium enrichment program, prompting Washington to abandon the earlier deal.

Since then, the U.S. has pursued diplomacy with the North through nuclear talks hosted by China that include Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas.

But those talks have been stalled since November, following Pyongyang's refusal to return in anger over the U.S. blacklisting on a Macau-based bank and North Korean companies for alleged involvement in counterfeiting, money laundering and weapons proliferation. Washington says the moves are unrelated to the nuclear issue.

On Thursday, Pyongyang repeated its call for a relaxation of U.S. financial restrictions as a condition for the country's return to arms talks.

"If the United States increases pressure while antagonizing us, we cannot but take super hardline steps to safeguard our right to survive and sovereignty," the North said.