A high-level North Korean official is traveling to the United States for meetings that may help push forward stalled diplomacy with Washington. The trip coincides with South Korean media speculation of talk between the North and South about a potential meeting of their leaders.
North Korean diplomat Ri Gun was departing for the United States Friday. He will reportedly land in New York, then on Monday is scheduled to attend an academic forum on Asian security at the University of California San Diego.
Ri Gun is North Korea's second most senior envoy in multinational talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs. His trip has fueled expectations he may meet his U.S. counterpart, Sung Kim, to lay the groundwork for North Korea's possible return to the talks.
Lee Gee-dong is a senior fellow at South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy. He says a meeting between Ri Gun and Sung Kim offers a chance for "mutual reconnaissance."
He says since former President Bill Clinton's visit to North Korea in August, there seems to have been some improvement in the tone of U.S.-North Korean relations. This trip could give both sides a chance just to see how much has actually improved.
Yoon Duck-min is a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. He says much of North Korea's approach toward the United States right now relates to the goals of leader Kim Jong Il regarding his successor.
Yoon says the North Korean leader is trying to "lower his son down safely from the back of a tiger, without getting eaten" - a metaphor referring to Kim Jong Il's apparent plans for his youngest son to take over one day.
Yoon says the tiger represents the entrenched power of the North Korean military. To accomplish the transition smoothly, says Yoon, North Korea must either normalize ties with the United States, or win de facto global acceptance as a nuclear state.
The United States says it will never accept North Korea's nuclear weapons, and that normal diplomatic ties will only follow serious steps by Pyongyang to fulfill its disarmament pledges.
Separately, several major South Korean news outlets are reporting the two Koreas have been discussing the possibility of summit meeting of their leaders. North and South Korea remain technically at war, and their leaders have only met twice - in 2000, and 2007. News reports say officials from the two sides met in Singapore recently to discuss a possible third meeting.
South Korean officials in Seoul refuse to confirm or deny the reports. Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, told lawmakers Friday any prospective summit would be contingent on several factors.
He says the prospect of a summit depends on progress on the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as the state of inter-Korean relations.