After Year-Long Freeze, US To Send Envoy To Pyongyang

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The Bush Administration plans to send its first high-level envoy to North Korea, after the reclusive communist state took up a U.S. offer for "any time, any place" talks.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency Tuesday cited an unnamed source in Washington as confirming that the State Department official in charge of Korean affairs, Jack Pritchard, would be visiting Pyongyang at a date yet to be announced.

The trip would aim "to break the ice that has thickened under President George W. Bush's administration," Yonhap said.

At Monday's regular press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher gave no indication of a visit to Pyongyang, but said Washington's offer to resume talks at a time and place of North Korea's choosing was "still on the table."

Pyongyang suspended links with Seoul and Washington last year after President Bush made it clear he viewed the North with more suspicion and less trust than had his predecessor.

During an Asian trip last February, Bush gazed across the heavily-armed border dividing the Korean peninsula, commenting, "No wonder I think they're evil," when told that a "peace museum" north of the border contained two axes used by North Korean troops to bludgeon to death two American soldiers in the 1970s.

Angry rhetoric from Pyongyang in recent months has accused the U.S. of planning an attack, warning that any aggressors who attempted to "crawl into this land" would be completely annihilated.

But signs of a thaw came earlier this month, when a South Korean presidential envoy visited Pyongyang last week, and returned with the news the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was moving in the direction of resuming talks both the South and with the U.S.

A government spokesman was quoted by the North's state-run Central News Agency at the time as saying talks with the U.S. were "necessary" and would resume once suitable conditions had been created.

South Korea, a key U.S. ally, has been uneasy about Washington's approach toward the North, and the ramifications for its own efforts to improve relations across the 38th parallel.

This week, North Korea allowed a resumption of reunions of families split since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The reunions, agreed upon at a historic summit between the South and North Korean leaders in 2000, have been frozen at Pyongyang's insistence since last year. Other commitments made at the summit, including a promise of a return visit to Seoul, development of a joint economic zone and work on a railroad linking the two Koreas, have not been met.

But for several days this week, hundreds of mostly elderly South Koreans will be allowed to meet relatives in the North for restricted family get-togethers. They are among some seven million Koreans believed to have family members on the other side of the world's most heavily-guarded border.

North Korea is one of seven countries Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism. It is also suspected of helping other rogue states develop weapons of mass destruction.

The country spends more than 14 per cent of its GDP on defense. By contrast, defense budgets as percentage of GDP in the majority of the world's nations are in the low single figures.

See also:
South Koreans Worry About Bush's Policy Toward North (Feb. 7, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow