- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

The United States sent a letter of "regret" to North Korea yesterday over a U.S. airline's search Tuesday of the North Korean delegation en route to the U.N. summit in New York, prompting the diplomats to return home in protest.

"I can confirm that the Secretary of State [Madeleine K. Albright] sent a letter but I would not characterize it as an apology," said a State Department official yesterday.

The letter was delivered "through our usual channels" to the North Korean mission to the United Nations, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The official would not go into any detail or release the contents of the letter.

The State Department said the U.S. government did not accept responsibility for the incident, which it blamed on overly diligent security staff at American Airlines in Germany, where the search was conducted.

The searches were performed because the diplomatic party headed by North Korean Supreme People's Assembly President Kim Yong-nam came from one of a half-dozen countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism.

Saying they were insulted by the search of their shoes, bags and outer garments, the North Korean officials canceled their flight to New York despite offers by the airline of passage on another flight.

The State Department official said that the department was unaware the North Koreans intended to enter the United States from Europe by a U.S. flag carrier.

Such airlines are required to conduct extensive security searches since the 1988 downing of the Pan Am flight by a bomb over Scotland.

While diplomats from countries on the terrorist list are exempt from extensive searches if they are based in the United States, the North Koreans "did not meet those criteria," said the State Department official.

Separately, President Clinton met yesterday with South Korea's President Kim Dae-jung at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York to discuss ways to end the North's missile program, according to White House spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Mr. Clinton also praised Kim Dae-jung for his peace initiatives, which led to the recent marked thaw in relations between the two Koreas.

The airline incident threatens to complicate the warming of North Korea's relations with the United States as well as other Western nations after 50 years of Cold War hostility.

However, North and South Korea have already said they will not allow the incident to disrupt their moves toward improved ties in the wake of the Pyongyang summit this summer between South Korea's President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The official North Korean press service KCNA Wednesday blamed the pat-down search of the North Korean party on the "brazen-faced and brigandish obstructive moves of the U.S. administration authorities."

The State Department official said: "It is our feeling that this incident should not have an effect on our bilateral relations. There were no U.S. government personnel involved in this incident."

Since Kim Young-nam is formally the head of the North Korean state, he might have been able to meet with Mr. Clinton in New York.

While no meeting was arranged, if it had taken place it would have been the highest level contact between the two adversaries of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sum may still attend the U.N. General Assembly session, where a meeting with Mrs. Albright has not been ruled out, said a State Department source.

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