Hill is the first top U.S. diplomat in five years to travel to the capital of Stalinist North Korea, which has announced it has a nuclear weapon capability.
International diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear issue has been gaining pace in recent days.
But until today there were no signs that Washington was set to send its top negotiator to Pyongyang.
"We are just here for a brief stop," Hill told reporters on arrival. "It's part of our consultations in the region, and we want to get the six-party process moving. 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."
A Surprise Shift?
"The New York Times" called Hill’s visit a "sharp reversal of strategy" by Washington.
"We didn’t expect this visit by Christopher Hill to Pyongyang," says Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea expert at Britain’s University of Leeds. "I think that’s really encouraging, if a little bit ironic, because for years and years, the [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration said, ‘We don’t do this, we don’t do like [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton did, we don’t negotiate one-on-one with North Korea.’ Now they’re doing exactly that.”
The six-party disarmament talks -- involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States -- produced a deal on February 13.
Pyongyang agreed to start disabling its nuclear programs in exchange for aid, thousands of tons of badly needed fuel oil, and diplomatic benefits, including a possible normalization of its U.S. relations.
"We want to get the six-party process moving. We hope that we can make up for some of the time that we lost this spring." -- U.S. envoy Christopher Hill
The deal came after tensions soared following Pyongyang’s first nuclear weapons test in October.
But progress on implementing the deal stalled, mainly because Pyongyang had yet to receive $25 million in funds held in a Macau bank and frozen by U.S. sanctions.
On June 16, North Korea said the issue over the frozen funds was almost entirely settled, and promptly invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to return inspectors back to the country.
Today there was fresh uncertainty over that visit, when North Korea's Embassy in Vienna said it was on hold for now because the money had not actually arrived.
But regardless whether it does go ahead, China today offered another sign that the diplomatic pace is picking up, announcing that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will visit North Korea from July 2-4.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang also told a news conference that Beijing was pleased to learn of Hill’s visit to Pyongyang.
"We have said that we hope it will help with the six-party talks process," Qin said. "We hope the United States and North Korea can find ways to improve bilateral relations through dialogue and consultations. It will benefit peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, as well as that in northeast Asia."
Hill is due to leave on June 22. The U.S. State Department says he will meet with his North Korean counterpart in the nuclear talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.
The February deal "didn’t ask them to declare anything about their military nuclear weapons -- how many bombs they’ve got, which is a key issue." But "any process is better than no process.” -- Aidan Foster-Carter, Leeds University
His next task is to get Pyongyang to live up to its February commitments.
That means, firstly, shutting down its main nuclear reactor. By using the Yongbyon reactor’s spent fuel, North Korea, according to public U.S. intelligence estimates, has manufactured enough plutonium to build eight or more nuclear weapons.
Media reports also say that Hill might be authorized to offer to buy from North Korea nuclear equipment that the country is believed to have purchased years ago from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer.
That equipment reportedly could give Pyongyang the ability to enrich uranium, and thus a second means to obtaining nuclear weapons, though it remains unclear whether the North Koreans have mastered the enrichment process.
Also, as part of the February deal, North Korea is supposed to supply the United States and other members of the six-party talks with a complete list of all its nuclear programs and facilities.
Despite all this, Foster-Carter says it’s questionable whether North Korea would ever agree to give up its nuclear weapons. However, he says he believes engaging North Korea, at this point, is better than nothing at all.
A satellite image of Yongbyon (AFP)
"They’re not even being asked yet to give up their bomb," he says. "The February agreement, detailed though it was with all its timelines, was strictly Stage 1 of an unspecified number. It didn’t ask them to declare anything about their military nuclear weapons -- how many bombs they’ve got, which is a key issue, and so on. So all of that is a long way down the road. The suggestion, however, which I do go along with, is that any process is better than no process.”
Hill is the most senior State Department official to visit North Korea since October 2002. Then, envoy James Kelly confronted Pyongyang with proof that he said suggested a secret program for uranium enrichment.
Pyongyang denied that accusation and kicked out IAEA inspectors, sparking the collapse of a 1994 nuclear agreement with Washington and the latest nuclear crisis.