Quick trip signals better rapport
The surprise visit by the chief US nuclear negotiator to his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang, outside the venue of six-party talks, may indicate an increasing rapport between the key men in a process in which lack of bilateral trust has been cited as a key obstacle.
'My purpose in going was to respond to my six-party talks colleague Kim Kye-gwan's request that I come for discussions,' said US Undersecretary of State Christopher Hill at a press conference in Seoul. 'It was part of an overall visit to the region.'
The US side turned down a similar invitation from Pyongyang last year. The visit was the first by a senior US official since that of Mr Hill's predecessor, James Kelly, in 2002. Then Mr Kelly's team accused the North of a secret uranium-based nuclear programme, triggering a crisis that culminated in Pyongyang's detonation of a nuclear device last October.
In a reversal of earlier American positions not to negotiate with North Korea outside the six-party format, Mr Hill met Mr Kim in Berlin on January 16.
Pundits ascribe the breakthrough six-party denuclearisation agreement on February 13 to the bilateral, closed-door Berlin meeting
'That was the trigger negotiation between Washington and Pyongyang,' said Park Yong-ho of the Korea Institute of National Unification. 'I think Hill and Kim built some kind of personal relationship, and I guess the North Korean authorities found a change in the past US stance.'
'Hill is a supporter of a moderate line and is more willing to negotiate and make concessions and the only way to do something about North Korea is to make concessions - like it or not,' said Andrei Lankov, of Seoul's Kookmin University.