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Top NKorea official allowed to visit Japan-source

Written by: Staff

TOKYO, Apr 6 (Reuters) North Korea's chief negotiator for six-party talks on the secretive communist state's nuclear arms programme has been granted permission for a rare visit to Japan that could provide a chance to persuade Pyongyang to return to the stalled negotiations.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan would join officials from all the countries taking part in the six-way talks aimed at preventing a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The officials -- including US chief negotiator Christopher Hill -- will be in Tokyo for a private forum on security issues that begins on Sunday.

The six countries in the nuclear talks agreed in principle in September that the North would dismantle its nuclear programmes in exchange for aid and better diplomatic ties.

But the last session in November ended without progress and North Korea has said it would be unthinkable to return to the table while Washington is taking action against its alleged counterfeiting, drug trafficking and money laundering. North Korea has denied involvement in any illegal activities.

Kim Kye-gwan, a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, is expected to arrive in Japan later this week, a source in Tokyo with close ties to Pyongyang told Reuters.

Korea experts in Tokyo believe the gathering could set the stage for resuming the negotiations.

''Although this is a private forum, it could give us a good chance to pave the way for resolving North Korea's nuclear programmes,'' a senior Japanese government official said yesterday, on condition of anonymity.

BUSH-HU MEETING Masao Okonogi, a professor at Tokyo's Keio University, said expectations of another round of six-party talks before Chinese President Hu Jintao meets US President George W Bush later this month had faded because of friction between Pyongyang and Washington over the money laundering allegations.

''But neither America nor North Korea or the other participants want to destroy the six-party framework,'' he said.

''There is a small possibility that there could be an agreement to resume the six-way talks. That would make it easier for Hu when he meets Bush.'' North Korea could try to persuade the United States to lift the financial sanctions but Washington was unlikely to agree easily, said Noriyuki Suzuki, chief analyst at the Tokyo-based Radiopress news agency, which monitors North Korean media.

''This is a miniature version of the six-party talks and North Korea wants to send a message that it has no intention of scrapping the six-party framework,'' Suzuki said.

US ambassador to Seoul Alexander Vershbow said in an online chat with South Korean residents yesterday that Washington was losing patience with Pyongyang for stalling the six-party talks.

The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

Other North Korean officials including Jong Thae-yang, deputy chief of the Foreign Ministry's US affairs department, and Han Song-ryol, deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, were also granted permission to visit Tokyo, the source in Tokyo said.

Reuters OM BD1454

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