Two senior U.S. diplomats will travel to Japan, China and South Korea next week to prepare for the resumption of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program. The nuclear dialogue, stalled for a year, is expected to resume in a matter of weeks.
Officials here describe the mission of diplomats Nicholas Burns and Robert Joseph as two-fold -- to lay groundwork for a resumption of the six-party talks and to press for implementation of sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council after North Korea's October 9th nuclear test.
Burns, who is Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and Joseph, the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, will visit Japan, China and South Korea on a six-day mission beginning Sunday in Tokyo.
North Korea agreed to return to the Chinese-sponsored nuclear negotiations after a year's absence during a round of secret talks earlier this week with U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Beijing.
The surprise announcement came little more than two weeks after the Security Council voted unanimously to sanction Pyongyang for its nuclear test.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the objective of the Burns-Joseph mission is to press ahead on the U.N. sanctions while trying to assure that the long-running six-party talks make some tangible progress:
"Their mission, very simply to encapsulate, is to talk about continuing implementation of Security Council resolution 17-18 and also talk about how you create the right conditions, the best atmosphere, to prepare for this next round of six-party talks, in order to make it an effective round so that we start to see progress using the September 19th joint statement as the starting point," McCormack said.
In the September 2005 statement, North Korea joined the other five parties in an agreement in principle under which it would scrap its nuclear program in return for aid and security guarantees.
But it refused to return to the talks after a brief round last November, citing penalties the United States imposed on a Chinese bank in Macao accused of helping North Korea pass counterfeit U.S. currency and launder money from other illicit transactions.
In this week's Beijing meeting, North Korea accepted a U.S. offer to discuss the issue in the context of the six-party talks, perhaps in a working group set up for that purpose.
However, officials here deny that the arrangement includes a U.S. commitment to drop the financial penalties or to return North Korean funds that have been frozen as a result of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The six-party talks, which began in 2003, include Russia, Japan and South Korea as well as the United States, North Korea and host China.
Spokesman McCormack said Undersecretaries Burns and Joseph will meet Russian diplomats in Beijing next Wednesday but that there are no plans for them to meet North Korean officials.
No date has been announced for the resumption of the six-party talks, though U.S. officials have said they expect them to reconvene before the end of the year and perhaps sometime this month.