Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Senior N Korean official to travel to Washington soon

REUTERS , BEIJING AND TOKYO

A senior North Korean foreign ministry official will make a rare trip to the US soon, becoming the highest-ranking figure from Pyongyang to visit since US President George W. Bush took office.

News of the planned US visit by Ri Gun, deputy head of US affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry, came as the State Department's point man on the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs headed to Beijing for talks.

The US embassy declined to comment on Ri's expected trip, which would follow on the heels of a visit to Washington by Pyongyang's UN ambassador -- the first allowed by the Bush administration.

"He is going to Washington, I believe, quite soon," a South Korean diplomat said yesterday, referring to Ri.

"He is going ... to attend some seminar," the diplomat said.

A Chinese expert on North Korea said Ri, a key negotiator at six-party talks on the crisis, would visit the US soon, though the dates were not clear.

A diplomatic source in Tokyo said Ri would also visit New York for about a week and attend a gathering of scholars, experts and officials on Aug. 10.

Ri was also likely to meet US officials and to discuss the nuclear issue, said the source who declined to be identified.

The US State Department's North Korea negotiator, Joseph DeTrani, was due in Beijing shortly, an embassy official said yesterday.

Ri's visit to Washington would follow last week's visit to the US capital by the North Korean envoy to the UN, Pak Gil-yon.

His presence there possibly reflected progress at recent talks to end North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs.

North Korea's UN ambassador must obtain State Department permission to travel outside a 40km radius around New York city.

Ri was chief negotiator at three-party talks between North Korea, the US and host China in April of last year, and has been in the delegation at later rounds of six-way talks that included South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Meanwhile, China is proposing that six-party "working level" talks on North Korea's nuclear programs be held from Aug. 11 to Aug. 14, Japanese public broadcaster NHK television reported yesterday.

Quoting unidentified Chinese government officials in Beijing, NHK said China was stressing that the working-level talks should be held in the middle of next month so that senior-level six-way talks could take place by the end of September.

Japan's top government spo-kesman, Hiroyuki Hosoda, said yesterday that no dates for working-level talks had been set.

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