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(photo credit: AP [file])
Pyongyang's main nuclear envoy was preparing to visit the US within days, local media reported Saturday, a day after North Korea invited the chief UN atomic inspector to visit the country in a show of commitment to its recent pledge to take early steps to disarm.
The North's invitation to Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, helped alleviate some misgivings that the unpredictable regime might backtrack on its Feb. 13 agreement to shut down and disable its nuclear facilities.
On Friday in Vienna, ElBaradei offered few details about his upcoming trip to the isolated communist regime but other agency officials said it would likely occur in the second week of March.
North Korea kicked IAEA monitors out in late 2002, at the beginning of the current nuclear standoff, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reactivating its mothballed nuclear program that led to its first-ever atomic weapons test in October.
Still, ElBaradei's trip will mark only an initial step in the long and complex process that the international community hopes will result in stripping the North of its nuclear weapons capabilities and ensuring it remains without such arms.
The Feb. 13 deal reached in Beijing calls for North Korea to close its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, allow IAEA monitors back to the country to verify the closure, and then disable all its nuclear facilities.
In return, the North would get economic assistance and political incentives, including the establishment of a bilateral working group on establishing diplomatic relations with the US
That working group must convene its first meeting no later than 30 days after the agreement.
South Korean news reports said Saturday that the North's main nuclear envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, plans to visit the United States for the first working group meeting within days.
The Yonhap news agency said Kim is expected to arrive in San Francisco on Thursday before flying on to New York for meetings with his US counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. The report cited multiple unidentified individuals in the US
If Kim's trip takes place, it would be the first US visit by North Korea's main nuclear envoy since the international standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions flared in late 2002.
Hill said at the end of the Beijing negotiations that he had invited Kim to New York to discuss normalization.
The US State Department did not directly confirm the report. Spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said the department was setting up a meeting in New York with the North Koreans, but that details have yet to be finalized.
"We hope to establish the US-DPRK working group soon and make an announcement," said she said, using the acronym for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Before flying to New York, Kim plans to spend one night in San Francisco to deliver a lecture at Stanford University, Yonhap said. The North Korean diplomat may also give a lecture at New York's Korea Society, it said.
Major South Korean newspapers carried similar reports. None of the reports said how long Kim was expected to stay in the US
The Feb. 13 breakthrough put a cap on rising tensions in the region since North Korea's nuclear test in October. But it was also criticized for allegedly rewarding the communist nation for bad behavior.
The countries involved in the six-nation talks are the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.
Despite the conciliatory mood, North Korean state media kept up its routine criticism of the United States on Saturday, accusing Washington of plotting to invade the country.
"Dialogue and military threats can never be compatible," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "The United States should ponder over how high a price it would pay for its reckless maneuvers."