U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will visit North Korea’s capital Pyongyang this week, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported on Monday, though there was no confirmation from either the United Nations or the South Korean foreign ministry.
The Yonhap report quoted an unnamed U.N. source, who expected Ban would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in what could mark a rare diplomatic opening by the isolated state.
“It is impossible that the U.N Secretary-General will not meet the leader of North Korea, a U.N. member state, as he visits the country,” the source told Yonhap, adding that the trip would likely provide significant momentum to resolve issues on the Korean Peninsula.
Ban, who is South Korean, had earlier this year made plans to visit an industrial park in the North operated jointly by the two Koreas, but Pyongyang retracted approval for the trip at the last minute without explanation.
The U.N. spokesman’s office said in a statement that it had no comment on the reported planned visit to Pyongyang. The statement said Ban has always declared his readiness to help enhance dialogue and peace on the Korean peninsula.
The secretive North, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is under heavy U.N., EU and U.S. sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests.
South Korea’s foreign ministry could not confirm the Yonhap report. Its Unification Ministry said Ban has not contacted the South Korean government about any plan to visit the North.
If the visit does take place, analysts expect Ban to raise the issues of sanctions and the North’s suspected nuclear arms program.
“The key point of discussion will have to be the U.N. sanctions on the North’s weapons of mass destruction program,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, an expert on the North at Korea University near Seoul.
“The message by the North may be that it is willing to be flexible on the issue,” he said.
“It is a positive opportunity for the North to showcase its leader Kim Jong Un appearing with a world figure as a national leader,” Yoo said.
In December last year, the U.N. General Assembly urged the Security Council to consider referring the North to the International Criminal Court after a U.N. inquiry detailed wide-ranging abuses in the country comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.
Two serving U.N. chiefs have visited the North previously. Kurt Waldheim visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in 1979 and again in 1981. Boutros Boutros-Ghali visited in 1993.
Ban served as South Korea’s foreign minister from 2004 to 2006, a period of intense multinational negotiations aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program. Those talks led to a 2005 deal that later fell apart.
Forging a breakthrough with North Korea would be a signature achievement for Ban, whose second five-year term at the helm of the UN finishes at the end of 2016.
Ban has been mentioned in South Korean media and public opinion polls as a potential candidate in the presidential election scheduled in 2017, but has denied any intention to run.
(Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Richard Pullin and Simon Cameron-Moore)
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