UN envoy in North Korea to spur nuke talks

SEOUL: A senior U.N. envoy pressed ahead Wednesday with international efforts to get North Korea back into nuclear disarmament talks, during the world body's first high-level visit to the reclusive state in nearly six years.

In Beijing, top nuclear negotiators from North Korea and China were to meet again Wednesday, a day after discussing how to restart the six-nation nuclear talks aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its atomic weapons program in return for aid, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

The meeting in China was believed to have focused on the North's calls for U.N. sanctions to be lifted and a peace treaty signed with Washington formally ending the Korean War before it returns to the disarmament talks, Yonhap reported, citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Beijing.

The flurry of diplomacy heightened speculation that there could be a breakthrough to jump-start the stalled talks, which include the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

"This is a sign that the resumption of the six-party talks is imminent," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. The North's top negotiator "is expected to tell Chinese officials about North Korea's disarmament plan in a more concrete manner" — probably in return for aid from Beijing, he said.

U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe was greeted Tuesday by North Korean officials at an airport on the outskirts of Pyongyang, according to footage broadcast by APTN in the North's capital.

Pascoe said the aim of his visit was to find "ways we can cooperate better," according to the footage. "So it should be quite useful we hope."

Pascoe's trip was the first to North Korea by a high-level U.N. official since 2004, according to Seoul's Foreign Ministry. The envoy is reportedly bearing a letter from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The four-day visit came a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il assured visiting top Chinese Communist Party official Wang Jiarui that Pyongyang is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The next day, Kim sent his chief nuclear envoy to Beijing for talks.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Tuesday that the United States supported talks between North Korea and China and hoped that the contact would lead to a resumption of the nuclear disarmament talks.

He said North Korea seemed to be saying the right things recently but added: "The right words must be followed by action. Words by themselves are not sufficient."

Crowley said he expected that that tough message would be delivered by the Chinese to the North Korean negotiator.

North Korea walked away from the talks last year during a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

Pyongyang, however, has been reaching out to Washington, Seoul and Beijing in recent months, and has taken tentative steps toward discussing how to get the process going again. Analysts say the about-face shows the regime is feeling the pinch from sanctions taken after its May nuclear test.

The North's chronic food shortage is expected to worsen this year, following a decrease in food production over the past year due to bad weather and the suspension of South Korea's fertilizer aid, according to the state-run Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul.

The North's total grain production for 2009 was estimated at about 4.4 million tons (4 million metric tons), down 9 percent from 2008, while the country needs 5.7 million tons (5.2 million metric tons) to feed its 24 million people per year, said institute researcher Kwon Tae-jin. He said about 2 million people could be "very seriously" affected by the worsening food shortage.

He said the North could resolve the shortage by drawing outside humanitarian aid after returning to the six-party talks and improving ties with the international community.

Pyongyang cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as its main reason for building up its nuclear weapons program. Washington says Pyongyang must come back to the talks first before any discussion about political and economic concessions.

North Korea and the U.S. would meet soon for "final coordination" to reopen the six-party talks, said analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea.

The mass-circulation Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul reported Wednesday that Kim Kye Gwan, the top North Korean envoy, was traveling with his English interpreter and speculated he may meet his American counterpart Sung Kim in an unidentified third country after his Beijing trip.