South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan will travel to the United States this week, officials said Tuesday, after a diplomatic breakthrough under which North Korea agreed to halt key parts of its nuclear weapons program in exchange for food aid from the U.S.
During his five-day trip starting Wednesday, Kim plans to hold talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday in Washington after making a stop in New York, a senior official at the foreign ministry said.
In New York, Kim will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and seek the U.N.’s support in pressuring China to stop repatriating detained North Korean defectors to their homeland where they face severe punishment and even death, according to the official.
In Washington, Kim and Clinton are expected to discuss a wide range of bilateral and regional issues, including the North Korean nuclear issue, the implementation of a free trade agreement between Seoul and Washington and the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran, the official said.
“In particular, the two ministers will arrange agenda for a summit between President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.
The summit between Lee and Obama will take place outside the March 26-27 global gathering, which will draw about 50 world leaders to seek better international safeguards for nuclear security and safety.
Obama hosted the first summit in 2010, saying that the world should work together to bolster international safeguards and prevent nuclear terrorism.
Under a deal announced by North Korea and the U.S. last week, Pyongyang said it will suspend its uranium enrichment program and nuclear and missile tests in return for massive U.S. food aid, raising hopes for an easing of tensions under the North’s new young leader.
The deal was welcomed by South Korea and other regional powers involved in the long-stalled six-party talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program. The multilateral negotiations have been stalled since the last round in late 2008.
It was the first important decision North Korea has made under its young leader Kim Jong-un, who took the helm of the communist state following the December death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
Although the deal is likely to ease some anxieties over the power transition in the North, there remains skepticism in South Korea over the prospect of reopening the six-party talks.
“North Korea will never go to the six-party talks as they are,” a high-ranking official said, also asking for anonymity.
“The problem is that North Korea doesn’t respect what it says,” the official said, suggesting the North may try to make another proposal even if it implements the deal with the U.S.
As for the issue of North Korean defectors held in China, the official said he “feels helpless,” representing Seoul’s growing frustration with Beijing’s long-standing policy of turning a blind eye to its calls against their forced repatriation.
“The government has brought up all the things it can to address the issue of North Korean defectors in China. For now, I think that an international non-profit organization will act on this issue,” the official said. “With regard to the issue, there is no choice but to make steady and persistent effort.”
South Korea has repeatedly urged China to treat North Korean defectors as refugees and not to send them back, but Beijing, the main backer of Pyongyang, insists that they are economic migrants and thus do not deserve protection.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nam will also visit New York this week to attend a security forum. Lim’s North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, will also attend the unofficial forum hosted by Syracuse University.
Seoul officials have said that no meeting between Lim and Ri has been set at the forum, but the two sides could meet.