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‘U.S. officials made secret trip to Pyongyang’

A group of U.S. officials clandestinely traveled to Pyongyang early this month, apparently to request the release of three detained Americans, a news report said Friday, indicating the two sides’ first direct dialogue in about two years.

A military jet carrying the officials entered Pyongyang on Aug. 16 for an 18-hour-long stay, The Kyunghyang Shinmun reported, citing unnamed multiple diplomatic sources.

“I believe that officials from the White House and under the Director of National Intelligence were aboard the aircraft,” the newspaper quoted one source. “The U.S. appears to have not gained any tangible results from the trip.”

Seoul officials said they had no information to provide.

U.S. State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki said at a press briefing in Washington: “I’m not aware of the reports you’re discussing, nor do I have any confirmation of them.”

The reports suggest the two countries’ first bilateral meeting since August 2012. Washington officials including Sydney Seiler, chief of North Korea policy at the White House’s National Security Council, were believed to have traveled to Pyongyang by a U.S. Air Force jet in April and August that year. Seiler was likely to be part of the delegation for the latest trip.

Three U.S. citizens are locked up in the communist state: Kenneth Bae, a 46-year-old Korean-American missionary who has been detained since November 2012; Miller Matthew Todd, 24; and Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56.

One focal point is whether the covert contact signals a possible shift in U.S. policy toward North Korea and its potential impact on a long-dormant six-nation forum on the country’s denuclearization.

The visit coincides with Washington’s ongoing reconfiguration of policymakers for North Korea affairs. Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is expected to take over as the chief envoy to the six-party talks from Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies, who will be stationed as ambassador to an Asian country later this year.

Seiler, for his part, will likely to move to Russel’s deputy and special envoy for the six-party talks, Seoul sources said. This means a resuscitation of the so-called New York channel for bilateral communication with Jang Il-hoon, Pyongyang’s deputy representative to the mission to the U.N.

The post has been vacant since Clifford Hart took office as consul general in Hong Kong in July 2013.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim could join Russel and Seiler in Washington, as Mark Lippert has been appointed as his successor, the sources said.

By Shin Hyon-hee (