UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is sending his top political aide to North Korea next month for wide-ranging discussions with the reclusive communist state, the United Nations announced on Sunday.
In a statement, the world body said that Lynn Pascoe, under-secretary-general for political affairs, would visit North Korea February 9-12 to discuss “all issues of mutual interest and concern in a comprehensive manner.”
Pascoe, who will travel as Ban’s special envoy, is a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and is the most senior U.N. official in years to visit North Korea. He will also visit China, Japan and South Korea, the statement said.
Those three countries, along with the United States, Russia and North Korea itself, form a six-party group that discusses ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in return for aid to the impoverished state.
Pyongyang has boycotted those talks for the past year. As a price for resuming them, it wants talks with the United States to reach a peace treaty to replace the armistice that halted hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War. Washington says a treaty is only possible when the North ends its atomic ambitions.
U.S.-led United Nations forces signed the armistice at the end of the Korean War with North Korea and China. A peace treaty would allow North Korea to tap international financial institutions for aid.
North Korea was hit with fresh U.N. sanctions last year to punish it for a nuclear test in May 2009, its second atomic detonation. The expanded measures are aimed at cutting off its arms sales, a vital export estimated to earn the destitute state more than $1 billion (627 million pounds) a year.
North Korea’s biggest arm sales come from ballistic missiles, with Iran and other Middle Eastern states as customers, according to U.S. government officials.
The U.N. sanctions and the cutoff of handouts from South Korea have dealt a blow to the North, which has an estimated GDP of $17 billion.
Last week, North Korea opened up sporadic artillery exchanges with the South over a disputed sea border. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said the North might be firing to press its demands for talks on a peace deal.
U.N. chief Ban, who is South Korean, has repeatedly said he would be willing to visit North Korea if invited. It was not immediately clear whether Pascoe hoped to set up an eventual visit by Ban. Both men are currently travelling abroad.
The U.N. statement said Pascoe would meet U.N. officials who work in North Korea on aid and development programs, visit U.N. project sites and meet the diplomatic corps. U.N. officials in New York could give no further details.
The last high-ranking U.N. official to visit North Korea was Canadian Maurice Strong in 2004, U.N. officials said. Strong was at the time special envoy on North Korea for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Editing by Doina Chiacu