The UN political chief is heading to North Korea on a rare four-day visit at the invitation of the government for a wide-ranging discussion on policy issues “of mutual interest and concern”.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman would arrive in Pyongyang today from Beijing, where he met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong on Monday.
Asked whether Mr Feltman would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Mr Dujarric said that his current schedule included meetings with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk, diplomats and UN staff.
Mr Feltman is the highest-ranking American in the UN Secretariat, after serving for nearly 30 years in the US Foreign Service where his last post was as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
His visit comes at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the United States, sparked by the reclusive country’s frequent missile launches and recent nuclear test, and particularly by its latest launch of a long-range ballistic missile last week which experts say could hit Washington.
Mr Kim and US president Donald Trump have traded insults and engaged in escalating rhetoric in recent months.
In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, Mr Trump threatened “to totally destroy North Korea” if the US is forced to defend itself or its allies and he later tweeted that Mr Kim – whom he called “little rocket man” – “won’t be around much longer”.
The North Korean leader responded to the Mr Trump by promising to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”, and Foreign Minister Ri called Mr Trump’s tweet a “declaration of war” and said that North Korea has the right to retaliate and shoot down US bombers.
Mr Trump announced on November 20 that the United States was returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism and promised to intensify a campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions as part of a rolling effort to compel Kim’s government to negotiate over its nuclear program.
Mr Feltman’s visit comes as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres prepares to brief a Security Council ministerial meeting on December 15 about North Korea that was called by Japan, which holds the council presidency this month.
Japan’s UN Ambassador Koro Bessho said the meeting will focus on finding peaceful ways to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and denuclearise the Korean peninsula.
Mr Dujarric said Mr Feltman was informally invited to visit North Korea during the annual gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly in September, presumably by foreign minister Ri who attended the session. But he said the invitation wasn’t issued until November 30.