A senior North Korean official who threatened last year that North Korea might test a nuclear weapon will attend a foreign policy seminar next week in New York, allowing him to cross paths with U.S. officials attending the same meeting, diplomats said.
This is the second year in a row that Li Gun, deputy head of U.S. affairs at North Korea's Foreign Ministry, will attend the meeting of scholars and experts hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on resolving conflicts that threaten U.S. interests.
Li's trip to New York follows a rare visit to Capitol Hill last month by the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations and other signs that the Bush administration's resolve to avoid bilateral meetings with the North Korea could be weakening. Because North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, travel by North Korean diplomats in the United States requires permission from the State Department.
Donald S. Zagoria, a professor at Hunter College in New York who helped organize the meeting, said Li was invited to attend the conference Aug. 10-11.
Since North Korea began reprocessing plutonium for use in nuclear weapons last year, the Bush administration has pushed for negotiations with North Korea that also include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea and has allowed formal talks with North Korean officials only on the sidelines of those talks.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry has criticized the administration for declining to meet directly with North Korean officials to resolve the impasse. Since he leveled his criticism, U.S. negotiators at six-nation talks in June met one-on-one for more than two hours with their North Korean counterparts. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke with the North Korean foreign minister for 20 minutes in July in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the North Korean ambassador was permitted to make his trip to Washington.
Diplomats said that several State Department officials are expected to attend the New York conference, including Joseph R. DeTrani, special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. But State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said "there are no plans for bilateral meetings between him [Li Gun] and U.S. officials."
During talks in Beijing in April 2003 between the United States, North Korea and China -- when the White House had ordered Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly not to meet with North Korean officials alone -- Li cornered Kelly at a dinner anyway and announced that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons and might test or transfer them. His government might be willing to end its nuclear projects, Li added, if the United States would change its approach toward North Korea.
Since then, three more rounds of talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions have been held in Beijing in the past year -- also including Russia, Japan and South Korea -- but none has produced a breakthrough. DeTrani last week traveled to Beijing for consultations with the Chinese on setting up a round of working-level talks later this month, in preparation for senior-level talks in September.
In June, the administration offered a more specific proposal for ending the impasse, which included a three-month window for verifying North Korea's disclosures about its nuclear programs. But last week North Korea issued a statement denouncing the U.S. proposal as "nothing but a sham offer."