Senior UN official starts rare visit to North Korea

UN under secretary general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman attends a press conference in Bogota on Nov 15, 2017.
UN under secretary general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman attends a press conference in Bogota on Nov 15, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - A senior United Nations envoy arrived at Beijing’s airport on Tuesday (Dec 5) on his way to North Korea for a rare visit aimed at defusing soaring tensions over Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile launch.

The visit by Jeffrey Feltman, which runs to Friday, comes less than a week after North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of reaching the United States.

AFP journalists saw Mr Feltman arrive in a UN-flagged car at the Chinese capital’s international airport in the morning. North Korea’s Air Koryo airline has a 0455 GMT flight to Pyongyang on Tuesday.

His trip comes a day after the United States and South Korea launched their biggest-ever joint air exercise – manoeuvres slammed by Pyongyang as an “all-out provocation”. 

The five-day Vigilant Ace drill involves 230 aircraft, including F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters, and tens of thousands of troops, Seoul’s air force said. 

Mr Feltman arrived in China on Monday as Beijing is one of the few transit points to North Korea in the world. China is Pyongyang’s sole major diplomatic and military ally, and its main trade partner.

Mr Feltman, who is the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, will discuss "issues of mutual interest and concern" with North Korean officials, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. 

The UN envoy is also planning to see foreign diplomats and UN workers in the North on humanitarian missions.

The spokesman was unable to say whether Mr Feltman will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The UN official will also visit China during his trip to the region, Mr Dujarric said.

He said Mr Feltman's trip was in response to an invitation extended by the North Koreans during the UN General Assembly in September.

 

Asked whether Mr Feltman would be preparing for a follow-on visit to Pyongyang by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Mr Dujarric would only say that Mr Guterres has always been ready to undertake a "good offices" mission if necessary. The UN Secretary-General has expressed his willingness to serve as a mediator to resolve the problem of North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes.

Mr Feltman's trip to North Korea would mark the first high-ranking visit by a UN official to North Korea since his predecessor Lynn Pascoe travelled to the North in February 2010 and former UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos went there in October 2011.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon planned to visit the now-shuttered inter-Korean industrial complex in North Korea's border city of Kaesong in May 2015, but the North abruptly canceled its approval for the trip.

Experts expect that Mr Feltman's visit may set the tone for Pyongyang to come to the negotiation table, reported Yonhap news agency.