The top US negotiator for international nuclear talks with North Korea said on Wednesday that he plans to query Chinese officials for signs Pyongyang is serious about abandoning its nuclear programs.
"We are interested in talks about progress and talks about denuclearization," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters upon arrival in South Korea for an overnight stop before proceeding to Beijing yesterday.
"We'll have to see what the Chinese have heard most recently from the DPRK side, and perhaps they have some very fresh news," Hill said, referring to the North by the abbreviation of its official name, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.
Hill's Asia trip comes as six-nation nuclear talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs are stalled over Pyongyang's anger at US-imposed sanctions related to alleged counterfeiting and other wrongdoing by the North.
His schedule of talks with counterparts in Japan, South Korea and China -- all members of the six-nation group, which also includes Russia -- also come amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is visiting China.
"I must say the trip that Chairman Kim Jong-il took to China was a surprise to all of us," Hill said.
"It's a complete coincidence that I'm in the area at the same time," he added.
He did not say if the US has confirmed Kim's visit.
North Korean strongman Kim is widely believed to have gone by train on Tuesday to China, his country's closest ally. But his trip has yet to be officially announced by North Korean or Chinese authorities, and his ultimate destination is unknown.
China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Kim planned to visit Beijing at some point -- and that the nuclear issue would be a key topic for discussion -- but did not give the exact timing.
China has in the past announced Kim's visits only after he has returned to North Korea.
The six-party talks, launched in 2003, resulted in a breakthrough in September as North Korea pledged to give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security assurances.
But follow-up negotiations have stalled. The biggest holdup is the dispute over US sanctions that Pyongyang says is part of Washington's "hostile policy" aimed at toppling its regime behind a smoke screen of dialogue.
"We are very much committed to the six-party process. We want to get moving on it," Hill said.
Early this week, the North sent its highest-level signal yet that the six-party talks are unlikely to resume anytime soon, with its Foreign Ministry saying it cannot return to the negotiating table as long as Washington maintains the sanctions.
Pyongyang has said it won't return to the table unless Washington lifts sanctions, insisting the two issues are intertwined. Hill said the US stance has not changed.
"I want to emphasize it's not a six-party talk matter," he said of the sanctions. "It's certainly a law enforcement issue."
Hill met earlier on Wednesday with his Japanese counterpart Kenichiro Sasae in Tokyo, and planned to meet South Korean nuclear negotiator Song Min-soon in Seoul.
Song visited Beijing on Monday and Tuesday for talks with China's Wu Dawei (
South Korea's Song blamed mistrust between the US and the North for the nuclear talks deadlock.