The U.S. has ruled out the possibility of a meeting with a top North Korean diplomat scheduled to make a rare visit to Europe later this week, downplaying the communist country’s intensifying peace offensive, a news report said.
Kang Sok-ju, secretary of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, is expected to embark on a 10-day trip on Saturday that includes stops in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy.
Given his high profile and history as a negotiator on top issues, his envisioned visit ignited speculation that Kang may hold covert talks with officials from Washington or Tokyo over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and Japanese abductees, respectively.
The 75-year-old diplomat is best known as chief negotiator to the Agreed Framework forged in 1994 in Geneva, in which the U.S. agreed to provide fuel oil and build light-water reactors in exchange for a cessation of nuclear weapons development by North Korea.
His rare trip came shortly after another news report that a group of U.S. officials secretly traveled to Pyongyang on a military jet last month, apparently to discuss the release of three U.S. detainees.
The Kim Jong-un regime appears to have recently been displaying a willingness to engage in negotiation, allowing the three men to have a rare interview with CNN on Tuesday during which they appealed for freedom and urged Washington to send an envoy.
But a spokesperson at the U.S. State Department flatly brushed off rumors about bilateral contact, Voice of America reported.
Department spokesperson Jen Psaki also said her government has already offered to dispatch Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, but his planned trip was called off twice.
“We’re going to leave no stone unturned in this case, and we certainly have means of communicating,” she told a news briefing Wednesday.
During his tour, Kang is slated to meet on Sept. 9 with Elmar Brok, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament, and discuss inter-Korean relations and other peninsular issues, according to Radio Free Asia.
Swiss newspaper Le Temps has also reported that he will hold talks with State Secretary Yves Rossier while in the country from Sept. 11-13.
Seoul officials chiefly see Kang’s trip as part of party-to-party exchanges as Pyongyang steps up diplomatic activities apparently to help relax international sanctions and induce economic assistance.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong is also forecast to go to New York for the U.N. General Assembly later this month.
But some observers raised the possibility that Kang may have consultations with Japanese officials as Pyongyang is likely nearing a completion of its probe into the survival of Japanese nationals kidnapped decades ago.
In early July, Tokyo approved a lifting of part of its sanctions against North Korea in line with their bilateral agreement reached in Stockholm in May.
“Kang’s trip could naturally focus on party-level activities, but we’re paying keen attention given the rare nature of his trip, his standing in the country as a diplomat and the fact that Europe has often been a destination for a clandestine meeting or the announcement of a highly sensitive deal,” a Seoul official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org