SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - In another sign of warming relations between two wartime foes, a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator will attend a security conference in the United States, a U.S. official confirmed Thursday.
Word of Ri Yong Ho's visit to the forum held by Syracuse University comes on the heels of a breakthrough agreement that will provide much-needed U.S. food aid to North Korea in exchange for a rollback of its nuclear programs.
The agreement announced Wednesday sets in motion a plan laid out by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il before his death in December: to improve relations with the U.S. and to get back to six-nation disarmament-for-aid negotiations. Significant challenges remain, however, in achieving the long-term goal of the U.S. and other nations: to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear ambitions altogether.
First, diplomats need to iron out the tricky logistics of distributing, and monitoring, the 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid earmarked for hungry North Korean children. They also need to work out a timeline for the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors tasked with verifying whether Pyongyang sticks to its promises.
And while the deal paves the way for unprecedented exchanges with the U.S., North Korea still must confront the complicated matter of improving relations with rival South Korea, still smarting from two deadly incidents in 2010 that Seoul blames on Pyongyang.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Robert Willard, said Thursday he is hopeful but not optimistic about the latest efforts to get North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
"In the past we have not seen much change," Willard told a congressional hearing in Washington.
Still, there was cautious hope that North Korea's relations with the U.S. and its allies have turned a corner after years of tensions. The agreement calls on Pyongang to suspend uranium enrichment and place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
In a possible sign of things to come, Ri, North Korea's vice foreign minister and envoy to nuclear disarmament negotiations, has been cleared to travel to the U.S. to attend the Syracuse University forum, The Associated Press was told in Seoul. While Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs will hold the forum, its exact location was not known.
The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, but the measures laid out in the deal announced Wednesday include facilitating "people-to-people" exchanges.
The deal is a sign 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.