USA Today, which first reported the visit, said the Bush administration would allow the trip, planned for Jan. 6-10, but would not facilitate or sanction it. The administration previously blocked a congressional delegation's visit to North Korea in October 2003.
A State Department official told news agencies that the mission is "[s]omething that the U.S. government has not been involved in, nor would we be participating in the inspections. This is a completely private initiative."
According to USA Today, the U.S. delegation will include prominent nuclear scientist Sig Hecker, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1985 to 1997. Scientists at the Los Alamos laboratory developed the first U.S. nuclear bomb.
Two Senate foreign policy aides who have visited North Korea in the past, including Frank Januzzi, a senior aide to Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., will also make the trip. Former State Department official Jack Pritchard will travel with the team, as will a China expert from Stanford University, according to USA Today.
News of the North Korea trip comes on the heels of the Bush administration's Christmas Eve announcement that the United States would send 60,000 tons of grain to North Korea. Analysts saw the decision as a goodwill gesture aimed at possibly enticing Kim Jong Il's government to resume discussions aimed at dismantling their weapons program.
China is attempting to organize a second round of six-country talks also aimed at bringing an end to North Korea's nuclear arms production. A first round of talks between Russia, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States was held in Beijing in August, but ended with no agreements.
President Bush has since said he would provide the North with a written guarantee that the United States would not threaten the country's security if it agreed to halt nuclear weapons production, but has rejected a formal non-aggression pact. For its part, the impoverished country has proposed an end to nuclear activity in exchange for diplomatic and economic concessions, which the Bush administration rejected.
Signaling that the North Korean government may be willing to further discuss ending its nuclear program, a New Year editorial appearing in North Korea's state-run newspapers declared, "It is our invariable principled stand to seek a negotiated peaceful solution to the nuclear issue between the DPRK (North Korea) and the U.S."
U.S. officials have long suspected North Korea of producing nuclear weapons at the Soviet-era Yongbyon complex, north of capital city Pyongyang.
The United States believes North Korea has already assembled one or two nuclear bombs, and North Korean officials claim the country has reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, which would provide enough plutonium to create another six atomic bombs.
In 2002, North Korea admitted to a covert program to enrich uranium, which U.S. officials said was in violation of a 1994 agreement to freeze the North's nuclear program. When the United States responded by stopping fuel shipments to North Korea that were part of the 1994 agreement, the North ejected U.N. nuclear monitors and is thought to have then resumed weapons development at Yongbyon.
-- Compiled from wire reports and other media sources