North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong arrived in Malaysia Tuesday for regional security talks seen as a rare opportunity for active diplomatic engagement with the reclusive communist state.
Ri arrived with a delegation of officials at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and headed to a hotel in the city center, appearing to avoid contact with the media as much as possible.
His arrival came two days ahead of the ASEAN Regional Forum involving all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 16 other countries and the EU.
At the airport, Ri left through a general arrivals hall while reporters waited to see him outside the VIP arrivals hall. Asked by one reporter whether he plans to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se during his stay, he left without an answer.
Reporters waiting for him at the hotel also missed him as he entered through a back door and headed straight for the elevator.
The ARF participants include all the members of the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program, setting the stage for various bilateral and multilateral meetings on the issue.
The six-party talks have not been held since late 2008, but the forum has drawn attention again in light of the recent progress in international efforts to curb Iran's uranium enrichment program.
But North Korea has stepped up its rhetoric in recent weeks, saying it is not interested in unilaterally giving up its nuclear program first.
Keen attention is being paid to whether the two Korean ministers will meet in between their partly overlapping schedules, which include a gala dinner on Wednesday and the ARF meeting on Thursday.
South Korea has said it is open to dialogue with the North, but critics have raised doubts about a meaningful meeting between the two as inter-Korean tensions persist over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses, among other issues.
Difficulties could be added by South Korea's efforts to include a clause condemning North Korea's nuclear and missile development in the ARF chairman's statement concluding the forum.
Ri's visit has also drawn interest amid speculation of a possible meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, which would indicate efforts to mend bilateral ties that have soured in recent years due to North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said earlier that Ri and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss their "bilateral agenda and peace settlement in the Korean peninsula."
Japan's Kyodo news agency also reported that talks are under way to arrange a meeting between Ri and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday.
From Malaysia, Ri will make official visits to Thailand and Brunei, according to the North's state media. (Yonhap)