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By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it would allow a senior North Korean official to visit this month, a move analysts said could be a first step towards talks between the two on ending Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
The State Department said it had decided to grant a visa to Ri Gun, North Korea's No. 2 official at multilateral talks on its nuclear programs, to attend meetings in New York and San Diego with private scholars and experts who study North Korea.
The department said nothing about the possibility of talks between U.S. and North Korean officials, but a source familiar with the matter said there was a high probability U.S. diplomat Sung Kim would meet informally with Ri on his trip.
The United States hopes a bilateral dialogue may bring North Korea, which carried out its second nuclear test in May, back to wider talks on abandoning its nuclear programs.
The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States but have been stalled since North Korea said six months ago it was quitting them.
The North recently telegraphed it wanted better relations with Washington, freeing two jailed U.S. journalists in August and signalling 10 days ago that it could return to the six-way talks but wanted to talk to the United States first.
It is unclear what may have triggered the recent warming.
After Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council imposed fresh sanctions on North Korea that are designed to restrict its arms sales, which provide a vital source of hard currency for the impoverished country.
The United States, which has said it has not decided on bilateral talks, wants some assurance North Korea will actually return to six-party talks and recommit to abandoning its nuclear programs before engaging directly.
U.S. analysts said that by allowing Ri to visit, the Obama administration might be signalling a desire to explore whether direct talks between the United States and North Korea might lead to a resumption of wider denuclearization talks.
"Washington is telling Pyongyang that they are interested in keeping the dynamic going, the trend towards dialogue that we have seen in recent weeks," said Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York.
"(It suggests) the administration is interested in keeping the dialogue ball in play," he added.
The New York-based Korea Society and another nonprofit group, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, have invited Ri to take part in an October 30 seminar in New York with private scholars, former government officials and analysts.
Separately, Ri has been invited to take part in the Northeast Asia Cooperative Dialogue at the University of California, San Diego.
Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said there still appeared to be a "chasm" between the United States and the North.
The United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear programs, which it sees as a direct threat to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, while North Korea has recently made clear that it wants to be accepted as a nuclear state.
"As of now, the two sides have irreconcilable differences," said Klingner. "A meeting between U.S. officials and Ri Gun would be to explore whether a bridge can be built."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)