The United Nations political affairs chief begins a rare four-day visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday.
The trip by Jeffrey Feltman is the first by a senior UN official in six years.
North Korea had extended an invitation to the UN in September to visit for a “policy dialogue”.
It comes after last week’s launch of what North Korea called its “most powerful” intercontinental ballistic missile, claiming it could hit the US.
Mr Feltman, a former US diplomat and the highest ranking American in the UN, will be in Pyongyang until Friday. His visit comes as South Korea and the US conduct their largest ever round of aerial drills.
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Asked whether Feltman would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Dujarric said that his current schedule included meetings with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk, diplomats and U.N. staff.
Feltman is the highest-ranking American in the U.N. Secretariat. He was tapped by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be the U.N. political chief in 2012 after serving for nearly 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, where his last post was as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who succeeded Ban, extended his term until April 1, 2018.
Feltman’s visit comes at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the United States, sparked by the reclusive country’s frequent missile launches and recent nuclear test, and particularly by its latest launch of a long-range ballistic missile last week which experts say could hit Washington.
Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump have traded insults and engaged in escalating rhetoric in recent months.
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Trump threatened “to totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies and he later tweeted that Kim — whom he called “little rocket man” — “won’t be around much longer.”
Kim responded to the U.S. leader by promising to “tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” and Foreign Minister Ri called Trump’s tweet a “declaration of war” and said that North Korea has the right to retaliate and shoot down U.S. bombers.
Trump announced on Nov. 20 that the United States was returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism and promised to intensify a campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions as part of a rolling effort to compel Kim’s government to negotiate over its nuclear program.
Dujarric declined to give any further details on Feltman’s trip or say whether he would discuss a possible visit to North Korea by Guterres.
The spokesman noted that Guterres has repeatedly said “his good offices are always available if the parties want.”
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Feltman’s visit comes as Guterres prepares to brief a U.N. Security Council ministerial meeting on Dec. 15 about North Korea that was called by Japan, which holds the council presidency this month.
Japan’s U.N. Ambassador Koro Bessho said the meeting will focus on finding peaceful ways to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
Dujarric said Feltman was informally invited to visit North Korea during the annual gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly in September, presumably by foreign minister Ri who attended the session. But he said the invitation wasn’t issued until Nov. 30.
The last U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs to visit North Korea was B. Lynn Pascoe in February 2010. Former humanitarian chief Valerie Amos also visited the country in October 2011, and the current head of the U.N. World Food Program, David Beasley, told The Associated Press last month that he plans to visit.
Dujarric said six U.N. agencies, with approximately 50 international staff, are represented in North Korea — the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Population Fund.