North Korea: UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman visits Pyongyang

The UN's Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman is leading the organization's highest-level visit to Pyongyang in more than six years. It comes amid massive war games on the peninsula and after a successful missile test.

The United Nation's political affairs chief was flying into Pyongyang on Tuesday for a rare, four-day visit to North Korea. Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman's trip will be the highest-level UN visit to the nation in more than six years as tensions with the US ratcheted even higher.

Feltman will discuss "issues of mutual concern" and meet with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk, diplomats and UN staff in the country, a spokesman said. The UN said it was unable to say whether he would also meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Read more: Which countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea?

It will be Feltman's first visit to North Korea since he took office five years ago, and the first by a UN undersecretary-general in more than seven years. Dozens of people hold the title of undersecretary-general, but seniority varies greatly.

The last senior UN officials to visit North Korea were Feltman's predecessor Lynn Pascoe in February 2010 and former UN aid chief Valerie Amos in October 2011, according to the UN.

Conflicts

Major achievement

In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

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Trouble with warheads

At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.

Conflicts

Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.

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US running out of patience?

Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.

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Testing the boundaries

Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.

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Whole of US within range?

Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.

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One of the world's largest militaries

Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.

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Vast capabilities

According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.

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Enemies all around

Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.

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Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.

'Long standing invitation'

The UN said Feltman was visiting in response to "a long-standing invitation from the authorities in Pyongyang for a policy dialogue with the UN." His visit comes less than a week after North Korea test-fired a new ballistic missile that it said was capable of reaching the US mainland.

His visit also comes just a day after the US and South Korea launched their biggest-ever joint military aviation exercises — a five-day drill involving 230 aircraft and tens of thousands of troops. Pyongyang described the maneuvers as an "all-out provocation" that would bring the region to "the brink of nuclear war." Russia and China wanted the drills canceled.

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The US State Department said it was "aware" of the trip, when asked if Washington backed the initiative.

"The United States will continue to work with other countries, including the members of the UN 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."

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Prelude to Gutteres visit?

When asked if the trip was in preparation of a possible visit by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a UN spokesman said: "We hope to have more afterwards."

North Korea has been subject to UN sanctions since 2006 over its missile and nuclear programs.

aw/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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