The Swedish Prime Minister, Mr Goran Persson, and a top EU delegation arrive in North Korea today for a visit which will include talks with the country's reclusive leader, President Kim Jung-il.
Mr Persson, representing the EU presidency and the first Western leader to visit the secretive Stalinist state, will express the EU's support for warmer ties between North and South Korea during his 36-hour visit. He travels to South Korea tomorrow for talks with President Kim Dae-jung.
During talks in Pyongyang, the EU delegation is expected to discuss North Korea's controversial missile programme, economic reforms, human rights and foreign aid.
Mr Persson will be accompanied on the landmark trip by the EU External Relations Commissioner, Mr Chris Patten, and foreign policy chief Mr Javier Solana. It is hoped the visit, which is a sign of support for Seoul's so-called sunshine policy, will invigorate the stalled Korean peace process.
The division between the two Koreas is one of the last remaining conflicts of the Cold War. The 1950-53 Korean War, still not officially over, ended in a truce rather than a peace agreement.
Later this month the Commission will ask the 15 member-states to approve the opening of an office in Pyongyang to represent EU interests. Ireland and France are the only EU states that have yet to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Dublin's position is that a proposal from North Korea to open diplomatic relations with Ireland will be considered only in the light of satisfactory progress on human rights and the reduction of tension between North and South Korea.
North Korea wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, last September with a proposal to establish relations. The North Koreans wrote at the same time proposing formal ties with Brussels.
It is understood that Ireland has begun preparations to hold talks with North Korea about establishing diplomatic relations. No meeting has yet taken place and the Government is happy to let the Irish position evolve slowly.
France, likewise, is maintaining a cautious stance towards North Korea. The two countries held talks in Paris last month but they broke up with no progress made. Paris is concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and not allowing non-governmental agencies to operate freely.
Ireland and France are unlikely, however, to oppose the EU proposal to open an office in Pyongyang.
While the visit reflects support for opening up the country following a long period of Cold War isolation, the EU remains seriously concerned about re ports of human rights violations in North Korea, particularly in regard to political prisoners.
Non-governmental organisations consider the human rights situation is appalling, but North Korea is so isolated it is hard to find solid evidence.
The UN warned last week of another serious food shortage in the country, which has been stricken by famine since the mid-1990s. The EU, keen to move from food aid to food security, has provided 200 million euros over the years.
A total of 75 journalists are accompanying the EU delegation on the trip, the largest group ever allowed into the country. Only 45 journalists were given visas to cover the visit of the former US secretary of state, Ms Madeleine Albright, to North Korea last October.
The EU delegation arrives in Pyongyang today. There will be an informal meeting and a banquet hosted by the leader tonight, followed by formal talks tomorrow. The delegation then flies to Seoul.
North Korea said yesterday US spy planes over-flew its territory 150 times last month, taking photographs and conducting electronic reconnaissance and other espionage activities.
The official Korean Central News Agency said in a report monitored in Tokyo the flights included 30 by U2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft.
Tension has been increasing between Washington and North Korea since President Bush took office. In March, Mr Bush said he would not resume missile talks with Pyongyang in the near future as there was no reliable way to ensure North Korea would comply with an accord.