SEOUL -- International efforts to shut down North Korea's nuclear program took a surprise turn yesterday when the United States altered course, sending a key official to Pyongyang for direct talks with the communist country.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Washington's chief nuclear envoy to North Korea, was the highest-level US official to visit the North Korean capital since October 2002.
The Bush administration initially preferred to meet North Korea with regional powers like China and Japan at the talks. But the United States has been moving away from that limitation, holding meetings on the sidelines of summits and sending White House adviser Victor Cha to Pyongyang earlier this year.
Hill's trip is the clearest indication yet that the United States is reaching out directly to the North.
The visit, coming before North Korea makes good on its promise to shut down its nuclear reactor, appeared to demonstrate how much the Bush administration wants to achieve a breakthrough in the effort to dismantle the Pyongyang regime's atomic weapons program.
"We hope that we can make up for some of the time that we lost this spring, and so I'm looking forward to good discussions about that," said Hill, who went to Pyongyang after several days of discussions with officials in China, Japan, and South Korea.
"We want to get the six-party process moving," Hill said. He referred to talks involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States aimed at securing Pyongyang's denuclearization in exchange for economic and energy aid for the impoverished state.
Television footage showed a beaming, relaxed-looking Hill arriving at Pyongyang's airport, where North Korean officials greeted him in just as amicable a manner, readily holding out an umbrella to protect him from a steady downpour.
"We're all waiting for you," said Ri Gun, North Korea's deputy nuclear negotiator.
Hill replied that he "got the message on Monday, and we had to work fast to find an airplane."
His remarks suggested the visit was hastily arranged and was made in response to a North Korean invitation.
Hill was to meet with Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's lead negotiator in the six-nation talks, the State Department said.
He planned to return to South Korea today.