WASHINGTON -- A White House official made two secret visits to North Korea last year in an unsuccessful effort to improve relations after new ruler Kim Jong Un assumed power, according to former U.S. officials familiar with the trips.
The brief visits in April and August were aimed at encouraging the new leadership to moderate its foreign policy after the death of Kim's father, longtime autocrat Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
The ruling elite apparently spurned the outreach effort, however. This month, after a surge of fierce anti-U.S. rhetoric, the government in Pyongyang defied international warnings and conducted its third and most powerful underground nuclear test.
The former U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the back-channel trips have not been formally disclosed, said the first visit was an unsuccessful attempt to persuade North Korea not to launch a long-range rocket.
North Korea carried out the launch April 12. The missile flew only a few minutes before it exploded and crashed into the sea. A subsequent test of another long-range rocket in December was successful.
The April trip was led by Joseph DeTrani, a North Korea expert who then headed the National Counter Proliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates U.S. intelligence agencies, the former U.S. officials said. It was unclear who led the August trip.
They said Sydney Seiler, who is in charge of Korea policy at the National Security Council, went on both trips. Seiler, a veteran CIA analyst, speaks fluent Korean. He could not be reached for comment.
The White House, State Department and CIA have refused to confirm or deny the 2012 trips, which occurred during the U.S. presidential election season.
"I'm not going to comment on this," Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an email.
U.S. officials have visited North Korea on and off for years. They include Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who led an official state visit in 2000. The last official U.S. visit was in 2009 when U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth sought to restart stalled six-party negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program. The talks have not resumed.