SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A senior North Korean nuclear negotiator is heading to New York next week on the heels of a breakthrough nuclear agreement with the United States, a person with knowledge of the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Word of Ri Yong Ho's visit follows announcements in both capitals Wednesday of an agreement calling for the U.S. to provide food aid in exchange for a suspension of uranium enrichment and a moratorium on nuclear and long-range-missile tests by North Korea.
The agreement, announced two months after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il, raises hopes of a major easing in nuclear tensions under his son and successor, Kim Jong Un. It's seen as a preliminary but necessary step to restarting broader six-nation disarmament negotiations that North Korea abandoned in 2009.
The deal also serves as the strongest sign yet that the foreign policy laid out in the final years of Kim Jong Il's rule — with improved relations with the U.S. as a key goal — will be carried out by his young son. Shortly before Kim Jong Il's death was announced, the AP reported that a deal similar to the one announced this week was imminent.
A return to negotiations before the end of the semiofficial 100-day mourning period suggests stability and continuity during the closely watched transition of leadership in North Korea.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the agreement a modest step and "a reminder that the world is transforming around us." but warned that the U.S. will be watching Pyongyang's actions closely.
In Pyongyang, a spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry told the state-run Korean Central News Agency that the steps are confidence-building measures designed to improve relations between the nations.
Ri, North Korea's vice foreign minister and envoy to nuclear disarmament negotiations, will attend a forum at Syracuse University in New York state, a person with close knowledge of negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. told the AP. A second person with information about Ri's itinerary also said the envoy would be attending the Syracuse forum.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity because Ri's travel plans have not been formally announced.
Ri may meet U.S. officials on the sidelines of the forum, the person with knowledge of the negotiations said. He also said that the State Department has cleared Ri's travel to the U.S.
The countries have lacked formal diplomatic relations for decades, but the measures laid out in the deal announced Wednesday include facilitating "people-to-people" exchanges.
The forum is being co-hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German organization that has an office in New York, the source with information about Ri's itinerary said.
The information could not immediately be confirmed with the State Department or officials at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, which is organizing the event.
The U.S.-North Korea announcement opened a door for the North Korean regime to improve ties with the United States and win critically needed aid and international acceptance. It paves the way for unprecedented cultural, educational and athletic exchanges between two nations.
The deal, finalized last month in Beijing, also opened the way for international inspections for the North's nuclear program, which has gone unmonitored for years.
Outsiders have been watching how Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s, handles nuclear diplomacy with the United States and delicate relations with South Korea. His consolidation of power, with the help of senior advisers who worked with his father and grandfather, appears to be going smoothly, although determining the intentions and internal dynamics in Pyongyang is notoriously difficult.
The U.S. and North Korea fought on opposite sides of the Korean War and signed an armistice to end the fighting in 1953. They have never signed a peace treaty, and the U.S. has some 28,000 troops protecting ally South Korea.
North Korea faces tough U.N. sanctions that were tightened in 2009 when it conducted its second nuclear test and launched a long-range rocket. In late 2010, Pyongyang unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons in addition to a plutonium-based program.
In the meantime, millions continue to go hungry, according to the World Food Program. The North, which has little arable land, suffered a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and chronic food shortages persist. U.S. charities reported after a trip to North Korea late last year that scores of children were suffering "slow starvation."
The United States said officials will meet soon to finalize details for a proposed package offering 240,000 metric tons of food aid for starters. Washington has promised intensive monitoring of the aid, a reflection of U.S. worries that food could be diverted to the North's powerful military.
Pyongyang appealed for U.S. food aid a year ago, and the two countries had been negotiating before Kim Jong Il's death.
AP writer Foster Klug contributed to this story from Seoul. Follow AP's Korea bureau chief Jean Lee at twitter.com/newsjean and Foster Klug at twitter.com/APKlug.