As under-secretary-general for political affairs, Feltman has the equivalent diplomatic rank of a national cabinet minister and is responsible for monitoring and assessing global developments around the world for the United Nations. Visits by U.N. officials of this rank to North Korea are rare but not unheard of: The last similar visit was in 2010, when Feltman's predecessor B. Lynn Pascoe visited the country.
However, this trip comes at a particularly tense time. Over the past year North Korea has made rapid advancements with its weapons program, testing multiple ballistic missiles and a nuclear weapon. After the country's most recent missile test on Nov. 29, experts suggested North Korea may be able to hit Washington. Kim Jong Un later said North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” state media reported.
Over the past 11 months, the Trump administration has pursed a policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, pushing both sanctions and diplomatic isolation in a bid to convince it to abandon its weapons program. President Trump has personally suggested military action could be an option for dealing with North Korea and the time for diplomacy was over. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, he warned that the country may have no choice “but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Kaneko declined to comment further on the purpose of the trip, pointing toward an official statement that said Feltman would discuss “issues of mutual interest and concern” with North Korean officials. Feltman was also in Beijing ahead of the visit to North Korea and had met with vice foreign minister Li Baodong while there.
Speaking to reporters in New York on Monday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric would not provide any details on whether Feltman would discuss a possible visit to North Korea by Secretary-General António Guterres. Dujarric said the invitation to Feltman was offered informally in September before being confirmed on Nov. 30, the day after North Korea's most recent ballistic missile launch.
During an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 30, Feltman delivered opening remarks that emphasized the United Nations could help find a political solution to the standoff with North Korea. “Security Council unity also creates an opportunity for sustained diplomatic engagement,” Feltman said. “An opportunity that must be seized in these dangerous times to seek offramps and work to create conditions for negotiations.”
During that address, Feltman also said United Nations member states needed to remember humanitarian considerations for the North Korean public. “The needs are increasing and food security remains a critical concern for 70 percent of the population,” Feltman said.
Like Pascoe before him, Feltman is an American citizen and a former U.S. ambassador, serving in that position in Lebanon between 2004 and 2008 and later taking a position as U.S. Assistant Secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. However, Joel Wit, a former U.S. government negotiator now with the U.S.-Korea Institute, said he doubted the visit could open up room for new dialogue between the United States and North Korea, which he described as “dead at the moment.”
“It's hard to believe that it could be the beginning of a serious mediation effort,” Wit said.
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