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Senior US Diplomat Makes Unannounced N. Korea Visit

The senior U.S. diplomat in charge of negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons programs has made an unannounced visit to the North Korean capital. Just hours after he arrived, however, North Korea appeared to backtrack on its pledge to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors to visit next week. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Before departing Tokyo for Pyongyang Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said it was important to make up for lost time on the North Korean nuclear issue.

"We have to catch up on some of the timelines, because we really fell behind this spring, and I think we have to do everything we can do to accelerate the timelines," he said.

Hill is Washington's chief delegate to six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. The talks also include Japan, China, Russia and South Korea.

Pyongyang agreed in February to shut down its main nuclear facility, a preliminary step toward full nuclear disarmament, by mid-April. But Pyongyang then delayed taking action for months because of delays in transferring North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank.

The problem appeared to have been resolved early this week, and things began to move again. The North Koreans invited United Nations nuclear inspectors into the country, and the inspectors have been planning to visit next week to arrange the shutdown.

However, on Thursday, a North Korean diplomat in Vienna said the date of the visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had not been confirmed. He said that the money from Macau had not yet been returned to North Korea, and until it was, no date for the IAEA visit would be set.

Hill, who has been on an Asian tour, arrived in the North Korean capital from Tokyo Thursday afternoon. Jeffrey Hill, a press attache at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, says the envoy will spend the night in Pyongyang, and depart North Korea on Friday.

"He's going to stop in both Seoul and Tokyo before returning to Washington," he said.

Tong Kim is a professor at Seoul's Kyungnam University. In his former job as a high-level interpreter for the U.S. State Department, Kim escorted then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea in 2000. He also accompanied Hill's predecessor, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, in 2002, the last time any high-level U.S. government official was in the country.

Kim says he doubts Hill will get the chance to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on this trip, because it is too early in the diplomatic process. He also says Hill is not senior enough, and the North Korean leader would wait to meet Hill's boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I think Kim Jong Il will certainly meet with [Secretary of State] Rice if she comes over there, but not at this point, because there's so much more Kim Jong Il will have to be sure of before really making the move," he explained.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon on Thursday praised Hill's decision to visit the North Korean capital, and says the South can now "move fast" on its promise of 400,000 tons of rice for the impoverished North. Seoul has been holding back on the shipment until the North carries out the shutdown as promised.

South Korean officials say both the shutdown, and the rice shipment, may be completed by next month.