Senior U.S. and North Korean officials have concluded rare talks here this week on Pyongyang's nuclear program, just days after the U.S. presidential election, the State Department said.
"The talks were substantive, serious, and they focused of course on how to move the six-party process forward," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
The senior U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Chris Hill, met for dinner Thursday with Li Gun, director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau, he said.
They want to keep the momentum going."
Former U.S. official
"They discussed the verification protocol, energy assistance, and disablement of North Korea's nuclear facilities," Wood said.
Sung Kim, U.S. envoy to the six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions, also met yesterday in New York with Li Gun for morning talks, a "working lunch," and another session in the afternoon, Wood said.
Two U.S. experts who met with Li said he appeared mainly concerned about the transition to a new administration under U.S. president-elect Barack Obama.
"The basic line was, we had bad transitions before, but we would like to see continuity this time," one source, a North Korea expert in New York, said. Li "was very clear [in saying] 'we want to keep talking to the Bush administration.'"
A former administration official who also attended the talks said Li's delegation was seeking assurance that "there wouldn’t be a dramatic change in American policy as there was when [President George] Bush came in."
"They want to keep the momentum going. They understand the new U.S. administration will have an internal review, but I think they left assured by most people there is not likely to be a dramatic change in U.S. policy."Long history
The discussions came amid mounting speculation over the health of North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, who hasn’t appeared in public for several months. Who might succeed Kim if he were to become gravely ill or die is unclear.
Li Gun led the delegation, which was invited by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society.
Washington and Pyongyang fought on opposing sides in the 1950-53 Korean War. They have no diplomatic relations and bilateral talks are rare.
Li Gun doubles as deputy head of the North Korean delegation to the six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Hill traveled to Pyongyang Oct. 1-3 to seek the regime’s agreement to a verification regime on its nuclear activities.
On Oct. 11, the Bush administration removed North Korea from a list of nations considered state sponsors of terrorism.
Li Gun is one of a tiny handful of officials authorized to speak on behalf of the highly secretive North Korean regime, diplomatic sources said.
“All you have to do to understand the message relayed by the North Korean government is to listen carefully” to what Li Gun, along with the country’s vice foreign minister, says, one diplomatic source in New York said.
“Through this visit to the United States, the North Korean delegation will have an opportunity to get a fix on what the next U.S. administration is is saying about North Korea,” the source said, speaking on condition that he not be named.
Li Gun, who formerly served as deputy chief of mission for North Korea at the United Nations, had planned to visit the United States in July 2006, but Washington never issued him an entry visa and the visit was scrapped.Original reporting by Changsop Pyon for RFA’s Korean service. Acting Korean service director: Francis Huh. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.