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Top U.S. envoy heads to North Korea

From Elise Labott, CNN
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U.S. envoy in North Korea
  • Bosworth is traveling with special envoy for six-party talks and will brief six-party nations
  • U.S. officials maintain Bosworth does not know in advance Pyongyang's position
  • Talks are highest-level discussions between two nations since Obama took office
  • North Korea's missile launches and nuke test in April brought U.N. Security Council condemnation

Washington (CNN) -- The top U.S. envoy for North Korea was headed for Pyongyang on Tuesday for the highest-level talks between the two countries since President Barack Obama took office.

Stephen Bosworth will fly from Seoul to the North Korean capital for a three-day trip aimed at determining whether the North will return to multilateral talks it abandoned earlier this year on disarming its nuclear program.

Bosworth had a narrow mission to determine whether the North would return to talks and was not carrying any inducements to entice Pyongyang to do so, a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the visit.

Neither side has said which North Korean officials would meet during his visit but U.S. officials say the North had promised high-level meetings. Bosworth is expected to meet with First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, considered to be a top foreign policy aide to leader Kim Jong Il.

U.S. officials maintained Bosworth does not know in advance Pyongyang's decision, but North Korean and Chinese officials have suggested North Korea could be willing to return to the talks.

"We obviously hope that Ambassador Bosworth's visit is successful in persuading the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks and work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a new set of relationships with us and with our partners," Secretary of State Clinton told reporters Monday in advance of the visit.

Bosworth is traveling with Sung Kim, the special envoy for six-party talks, and officials from the Pentagon and National Security Council. He will return to Seoul on Thursday before traveling to Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to brief the six-party countries before returning to Washington.

The talks follow a year of rising tensions with North Korea.

The so-called six party talks -- hosted by China and also including South Korea, Japan and Russia in addition to the United States -- are seeking to implement a 2005 deal calling on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid. But months after that deal North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

North Korea had begun to disable its nuclear reactor in 2008 but halted the process months later amid tensions with Washington. The last round of talks in December 2008 yielded no progress and was followed by a series of missile launches and another nuclear test in April, which led to condemnation by the United Nations Security Council.

A trip to North Korea by former President Bill Clinton to free two American journalists sentenced to hard labor for crossing the North Korean border with China led to a softening of the North Korean position and suggestions it would return to talks.