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Chief US nuclear negotiator wants to visit North Korea - reports
Updated: 2005-09-22 15:03

The chief U.S. envoy on North Korea's nuclear program wants to visit Pyongyang to hold direct talks over the standoff with leader Kim Jong Il, South Korean news reports said Thursday, AP reported.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill suggested the visit in a meeting with a high-level South Korean official, the Chosun Ilbo reported Thursday.

US State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan in Washington declined to comment on the report other than to say: "Nothing has changed." Robert Ogburn, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, had no comment.

Washington has consistently refused one-on-one talks. It says efforts to get North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons are a regional issue for continuing six-nation talks among North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, though U.S. officials have met directly with North Koreans in connection with those talks.

North Korea has long tried to engage the United States in bilateral talks, believing such meetings would boost its international status and help it win bigger concessions.

However, there would be no guarantee that the North Korean leader would agree to see Hill rather than demand to meet with a higher-ranking official.

Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest mass-circulation daily, cited an unidentified South Korean government official as saying that Hill showed a "strong desire" to visit the North and "consult directly" with Kim on U.S. efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Chosun Ilbo said Hill's plan faced opposition from U.S. officials with hardline views on the North. Should that be overcome, his visit could come next month ahead of the next scheduled round of six-nation talks, it said.

Yonhap news agency said Hill brought up the prospect of going to the North during a meeting last week with Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.

South Korea's government declined to confirm the reports.

"We don't have specific comments on that, but it would be desirable for participating countries to have various types of contacts as there is some time left before November," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Kyu-hyung said.

Hill was in Seoul on September 12 for last-minute strategy talks before flying to Beijing the following day for the latest round of six-nation negotiations. At the time, he met Chung as well as Song Min-soon, his South Korean counterpart at the Beijing meetings.

After the Beijing talks wrapped up Monday, Hill said he was willing to visit North Korea to keep channels of communication open but many factors would determine whether such a visit could be made. He did not elaborate.

The six-party nuclear talks _ the fourth round since 2003, produced a landmark accord in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid, security assurances and improved ties with the United States.

North Korea has since issued hardline rhetoric throwing that commitment into question. The country said Tuesday it won't dismantle its nuclear program unless Washington gives it civilian nuclear reactors to generate power.

Monday's joint statement represented an about-face to Washington's long-held position of not "rewarding bad bahavior" by North Korea. U.S. officials previously refused to discuss concessions for North Korea until it disarms, but joined other parties in the talks Monday in expressing "willingness to provide energy assistance" to the North.

The United States even assented to eventually discussing the provision of civilian nuclear reactors for North Korea, a demand Hill had rejected a week earlier.

The nuclear dispute flared in October, 2002, after U.S. officials raised allegations North Korea was pursuing a secret nuclear arms program using highly enriched uranium in violation of earlier promises.

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