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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
UK announces landmark Korea visit
North Korean soldiers
Talks continue about North Korean weapons
Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell is set to become the first British minister to visit North Korea.

The historic trip is expected to take place next month.

It will focus on the international community's efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its ambitions of developing nuclear weapons.

Mr Rammell also plans to raise the issue of human rights abuses when he meets North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun and other senior figures.

Talks first

The Foreign Office's chief expert on human rights will accompany the minister on the trip.

Mr Rammell told BBC Radio 4's World At One that North Korea, which set up an embassy in London last year, has wanted a British minister to visit for some time.

It had not previously been thought appropriate as the country had not been prepared to discuss human rights - something which had now changed.

I want to get beyond the automatic denials
Bill Rammell
Foreign Office Minister

"I am not naive," said Mr Rammell. "I think this is going to be a long haul but the fact they are prepared to engage in that process I regard as some sign of progress."

Claims about human rights abuses in North Korea were some of the worst he had seen.

"I want to get beyond the automatic denials," he said.

Coordinated?

The minister said he would voice "deep concern" at North Korea's nuclear programme and British support for the six-party talks on the issue.

He plans to point to Libya as an example of the progress that can be made when a country starts to renounce weapons of mass destruction programmes.

His trip follows a visit by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to Pyongyang earlier this month to discuss the nuclear weapons stand-off.

Mr Rammell said he wanted to ensure there was a consistent message from the international community on the issue.

His visit will not be limited to North Korean capital Pyongyang and as well as meeting government figures, he is expected to hold talks with non-governmental organisations.

Welcome

North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons and to be working on building up its arsenal but it is difficult for the rest of the world to verify these claims.

A third round of six-party talks about the weapons, involving North Korea, South Korea, China, America, Japan and Russia, were held in Beijing in June and another round is planned for next month.

The chairman of the all-party British-North Korea parliamentary group, Lord Alton, applauded the planned visit.

The British government had been right to link security questions with human rights, he said, and the logical conclusion was face-to-face talks.

"I don't think we've got anything to fear from engagement," he told BBC News Online, saying that process was not a kind of appeasement.

US message?

Lord Alton, a former Liverpool MP, visited North Korea last year and said more than 2m people had died through starvation because of the country's isolation.

He said it would be wrong to think North Korea was incapable of change.

Andrew Kennedy, head of the Asia programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Britain had no vested interests in North Korea.

North Korean officials believed they could get their message to the US through British ministers, without the connotations of a meeting with US officials, he said.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Andrew Kennedy, Royal United Services Institute
"It is, without doubt, the most secretive society in the world"



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