Envoy Stephen Bosworth is on a mission to win North Korea's commitment to return to negotiations on dismantling the communist regime's nuclear program. Pyongyang walked away from the six-nation talks earlier this year, angered by criticism of its nuclear and missile programs. A nuclear test soon followed.
Bosworth has said the disarmament talks - which involve the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. - would be the focus of the three-day visit to Pyongyang, the first since Obama took office.
State Department officials said Bosworth, who arrived Tuesday, was to hold high-level talks Wednesday before departing for Seoul on Thursday. Officials did not say who Bosworth and his delegation would meet.
There is speculation that North Korea will demand Wednesday that the U.S. sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang in return for a "yes" to the six-party talks.
The two Koreas have been locked in a truce, without a peace treaty, since the close of the 1950-53 Korean War. Wary of the 28,500 troops Washington has stationed in South Korea, Pyongyang has long sought a peace treaty with the U.S.
U.S. officials say discussion of a peace treaty is not on the agenda for Bosworth's trip to the North. However, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that it "would not surprise us" if the North raised other issues.
"We will make clear to them that should they return to the six-party process and should they reaffirm their commitments" under a 2005 disarmament pact, "then there is available to them a robust channel for bilateral dialogue," he said.
But if Pyongyang agrees, the U.S. can promise "a robust channel for bilateral dialogue with which we could discuss a wide range of issues," Crowley said.
Impoverished, isolated North Korea sees settling diplomatic relations with the U.S. as key to ensuring the country's survival, and winning the aid necessary for rebuilding its moribund economy. Communist North Korea has struggled since losing the Soviet Union as a benefactor and suffering a series of natural disasters in the 1990s. Today, North Korea relies on outside handouts to feed its population of 24 million
U.S. officials have said the issue of a peace treaty should be discussed at a separate forum at the six-party talks, along with fellow signatories South Korea and China.
This week's talks come after a year of threatening rhetoric and rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, restarted its atomic facilities, test-fired a long-range rocket and ballistic missiles and conducted the nuclear test.
Pyongyang says it needs nuclear bombs to counter the strong U.S. military presence in South Korea. The impoverished country has also used the atomic threat to win aid and other concessions from regional powers wary of the unpredictable neighbor.
But in recent months, the North has reached out to the U.S. and South Korea in an about-face that analysts and officials say shows the regime is feeling the pain of U.N. sanctions. Since August, the North has freed detained U.S. and South Korean citizens and taken other conciliatory steps, including inviting Bosworth for direct talks.
Bosworth was accompanied by Washington's lead nuclear negotiator, Sung Kim, as well as atomic and Asia specialists from the Defense Department and the White House. The delegation is to return to Seoul on Thursday before continuing onto Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to brief other parties in the international talks before returning to Washington.