U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron, deploy during Exercise Vigilant Ace 18 at Osan Air Base, South Korea, December 3, 2017. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Franklin R. Ramos/Handout via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations' political affairs chief will visit North Korea this week, making the highest-level visit by a U.N. official in more than six years as tensions grip the region over Pyongyang's nuclear and weapons programs.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior official of the U.S. State Department, will visit from Tuesday to Friday and meet with officials to discuss "issues of mutual interest and concern," the United Nations said.
He will meet with North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, adding that the visit was in response to "a long-standing invitation from the authorities in Pyongyang for a policy dialogue with the U.N."
"He will also meet with the United Nations Country Team and members of the diplomatic corps, as well as visit U.N. project sites," Dujarric told reporters, adding that Feltman was also visiting China.
Feltman will be the first senior U.N. official to travel to North Korea since his predecessor Lynn Pascoe visited in February 2010 and former U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos visited in October 2011, the United Nations said.
The visit comes at a time of high tension over North Korea's programme to develop nuclear tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States, including the test of Pyongyang's largest intercontinental ballistic missile last week.
An official of the U.S. State Department said it was "aware" of the planned trip, when asked in Washington backed the initiative.
"The United States will continue to work with other countries, including the members of the U.N. Security Council, to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on (North Korea) to convince the regime to abandon its illegal nuclear weapons and missile development programs," the official added.
"It is imperative that the countries of the world present North Korea with a unified, unambiguous response to its unlawful provocations."
The official said the U.S. focus remained on finding a peaceful diplomatic solution to the crisis, but "the reality is that the regime has shown no interest in credible negotiations."
While stressing that it favours a diplomatic solution, President Donald Trump's adminstration has said it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and has warned that all options, including military ones, are on the table.
On Monday, the United States and South Korea went ahead with large-scale joint aerial drills, a move North Korea had said would push the Korean peninsula to "the brink of nuclear war." Russia and China wanted the drills called off.
North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its missile and nuclear programs.
At a U.N. Security Council meeting last week to discuss the missile test, U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that while Washington does not seek war with Pyongyang, "if war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed."
Dujarric said North Korea issued the invitation for Feltman to visit on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York in September, but the visit was confirmed only late last week.
When asked if Feltman was paving the way for a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Dujarric said: "We hope to have more afterwards."
There are about 50 international staff working for six U.N. agencies in North Korea - the U.N. Development Programme, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. Population Fund.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)