N. Korean official meets with Albright

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Meeting is highest-level contact yet for 2 nations

By Gregg Jones / The Dallas Morning News

BANGKOK, Thailand – U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met for more than an hour Friday with North Korea's foreign minister, the highest-level contact ever between the United States and its bitter communist adversary.

The historic meeting in a luxurious riverside hotel in Bangkok marks another milestone in North Korea's recent flurry of diplomatic contacts with the outside world after decades of isolation.

The stage for Friday's meeting was set last month by the dramatic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il. The first-ever meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas – still technically at war – has raised hopes for an end to 50 years of armed conflict and eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.

Ms. Albright's 70-minute conversation with Paek Nam-sun produced no dramatic revelations or results. Afterward, Ms. Albright called the encounter a "substantively modest but symbolically historical step away from the sterility and hostility of the past."

The two officials had a "useful and substantive exchange of views" on all the critical issues dividing the two countries, said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity. Those issues include North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles and the famine-stricken country's desperate desire for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.

The United States has cited North Korea's missile program as a primary motivation for developing a national missile defense shield. Under a 1994 deal to head off North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a U.S.-led consortium is building two nuclear power plants in North Korea at a cost of $4.6 billion and supplying fuel oil to North Korea until the plants begin operating.

Missile issue

U.S. officials had hoped that Ms. Albright's meeting would shed some light on what is being described as a new North Korean offer to redirect its missile program toward the peaceful launch of satellites. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that North Korean officials recently told him they would be willing to abandon their missile program in exchange for space-rocket technology.

But under questioning by Ms. Albright, Mr. Paek wouldn't confirm that North Korea is considering such a deal, the State Department official said.

"We will continue to seek further clarification," the official said.

U.S. officials say they could accept the launch of North Korean satellites from a neutral third country. But they expressly reject the sale of rocket technology to Pyongyang.

Enmity between the United States and North Korea dates to the 1950-53 Korean War, in which more than 36,500 Americans were killed. The war left an estimated 3 million Koreans dead, wounded or missing and hundreds of thousands of families divided by the world's most dangerous border.

About 37,000 U.S. soldiers are still stationed in South Korea.

Public strides

Despite the bitter history between the countries and the lack of high-level diplomatic contacts, the mood during Ms. Albright's meeting with Mr. Paek was "businesslike" but "fairly at ease" and even "laced with humor," the State Department official said.

Mr. Paek elicited a laugh from Ms. Albright when he told her that she looked younger than when he had seen her – from a distance – last year at a U.N. gathering in New York, the official said.

While neither side made any new offers, "there was an agreement that both countries want to improve relations," the official said.

Mr. Paek has been the focus of enormous attention and curiosity since arriving in Bangkok late Tuesday for a meeting of Asia's leading security forum. Followed by reporters and photographers everywhere, he was visibly uncomfortable with all the attention earlier in the week.

But Friday, Mr. Paek, 70, seemed confident and relaxed as he smiled and shook hands with Ms. Albright while they posed for photographers before their meeting.

Many firsts

Even before Mr. Paek's landmark encounter with the U.S. secretary of state, the North Korean foreign minister had widened his country's embrace of the outside world with a series of diplomatic initiatives.

On Wednesday, Mr. Paek became the first North Korean foreign minister to meet his South Korean counterpart. On Thursday, he represented North Korea as the country was inducted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, Asia's largest security forum, which includes the United States and Russia as members.

Canada used the occasion to announce that it was becoming only the second Western country to grant North Korea diplomatic recognition.

Mr. Paek also met with the foreign minister of Japan to discuss the badly strained relations between the countries and press North Korea's demand for an apology and reparations for Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Japan has its own grievances, including concerns over North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Japan suspended aid to North Korea in 1998 after Pyongyang's test firing of a missile over Japanese territory. Japan is also demanding an accounting of 10 Japanese citizens believed to have been kidnapped by North Korean agents in recent decades.

Japan and North Korea agreed to resume the discussions in an Aug. 21 meeting in Tokyo.

Motives questioned

Scholars and diplomats are debating the motives for North Korea's recent diplomatic efforts after decades of sometimes self-imposed isolation and brutish behavior. The leading theory is that Kim Jong-il feels compelled to reach out to the world because of his country's virtual economic collapse and a devastating famine.

But while Mr. Paek and his deputies have won praise for their diplomatic polish this week, their homeland's decades of erratic and often-violent behavior is leading many diplomats to take a cautious view of the North Korean charm offensive.

"We're a long way from having any confidence over North Korea's actions...," said Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy. "There's going to be a very steep learning curve for them."