Senior UN official flies to North Korea for talks
Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations’ undersecretary general for political affairs, was scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang today and departed on North Korea’s Air Koryo from the North Korea earlier in the day. He is the most senior official to visit the country in six years, and his role as a possible intermediary at a time of escalated tensions with the North is expected to be observed closely.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Feltman is scheduled to discuss "issues of mutual interest and concern" with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, Vice Minister Pak Myong-guk and other officials.
He will also meet with members of the diplomatic corps in North Korea and visit UN projects during the visit, which runs through Friday.
North Korea extended an invitation to the United Nations in September to send a visitor for a "policy dialogue.”
Feltman, a former U.S. diplomat, will be the first senior UN official to travel to North Korea since UN undersecretary general of humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos, acting as an emergency relief coordinator, made a five-day visit to North Korea to assess food shortages in the country in October 2011, shortly before the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December of that year. Lynn Pascoe, Feltman’s predecessor and also a former American diplomat, made a visit to Pyongyang the previous year in February 2010.
Feltman was in Beijing prior to heading to Pyongyang and met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong on Monday.
There is especially interest to see if Feltman could help bring North Korea back to the negotiating table or arrange a visit by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to the country.
If such a visit by Guterres comes about, it would be the first by a UN chief to North Korea in over two decades.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, had planned to visit the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea in May 2015, but Pyongyang retracted its approval for the trip at the last minute. Kaesong, which was the last economic cooperation project between the two Koreas, was shut down by Seoul in February 2016, following North Korea’s nuclear test the month before and the launch of a long-range ballistic missile.
The last UN chief to visit North Korea was Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1993. The only other UN secretary general to visit Pyongyang was Kurt Waldheim, who went in both 1979 and 1981. Both met with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
UN Spokesman Dujarric did not elaborate on whether Feltman would propose a possible trip by the secretary general to Pyongyang and only pointed out that Guterres has repeatedly said “his good offices are always available” if involved parties want it.
Feltman, who served some 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, was appointed to the post as head of the UN Department of Political Affairs in 2012 under then-UN chief Ban, and advises the secretary general on peace and security issues. He previously served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Chinese senior diplomat Song Tao visited Pyongyang earlier this month as a special envoy to President Xi Jinping but returned home without meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Washington officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have said that the North’s launch of an ICBM on Nov. 29, which the regime said is a new Hwasong-15 missile that puts the entire U.S. mainland in its range, brings it closer to war with Pyongyang.
Feltman’s visit coincides with large combined aerial exercises by the U.S. and South Korean militaries, dubbed Vigilant Ace, involving more than 230 warplanes, including stealth fighters such as F-22 Raptors and F-35As, and around 12,000 personnel.
In an opinion piece published in the Guardian on Monday, Mark Seddon, a former speechwriter for then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a visiting professor of international relations at Columbia University, pointed out that John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN who was considered a potential secretary of state candidate for the Trump administration, visited London and the House of Commons recently to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
He said Bolton said that the CIA has told U.S. President Donald Trump that he has a “three-month window” in which to halt the North’s ICBM program, after which it will have the ability to hit U.S. cities including Washington with a nuclear-tipped missile.
The piece did not specify whether Bolton was on an official mission or not.
Seddon wrote, “Such is the severity of the situation that now may be the time for China to take the initiative, and call on the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, to use his good offices, and those of his predecessors Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan, to pull both sides back from the brink and preside over UN-sponsored talks.”
He added that the process could also involve China and the European Union, which can play the role of honest brokers, to lead to direct talks between the United States and North Korea.
“We hope that Undersecretary General Jeffrey Feltman, through his visit to North Korea, will be able to convey the unified will of the international community that North Korea’s provocations and threats have to be halted, and for North Korea’s return to the path toward meaningful denuclearization,” said Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a briefing Tuesday.
“We hope an opportunity for North Korea to come to a path of dialogue with the international community with be created,” a South Korean Ministry of Unification official told reporters in Seoul. “We are aware that the UN secretary general [Guterres] has expressed numerous times interest in playing an intermediary role on the North Korea nuclear issue,”
Vitaly Pashin, a member of the Russian legislature, told Russia’s Interfax news agency last week that North Korea has conveyed that it is ready to return to the negotiating table if Washington agrees to recognize it as a nuclear state.
He was part of a Russian delegation of lawmakers who met with Kim Yong-nam, president of North Korea’s Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, in a five-day visit to Pyongyang last week.
Pashin also told Russia’s state-run Tass news agency that North Korea indicated it was willing to conduct negotiations with the United States with Russia as a third-party intermediary.
But Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Voice of America Monday, that “it is not enough” for North Korea to “stop its program where it is today,” and that it has to be prepared to come to the table ready to “cease and roll back” its weapons program.
There are six UN agencies represented in North Korea, including the UN Development Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Food Program, with around 50 international staff.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]