- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

BANGKOK Asian nations today will welcome North Korea into East Asia's only regional security organization, continuing the Stalinist state's process of opening up to the world.

But several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF), the organization that North Korea is joining, believe the hermit kingdom must atone for crimes against the region before winning respect as an equal.

The ARF, a security working group comprising the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and 13 other countries with security interests in Asia including the United States and Japan, is meeting here beginning tomorrow.

Pyongyang's inclusion in the ARF will contribute to creating a freer political and economic climate in North Korea, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said yesterday.

"We welcome North Korea into the ARF with the hope that it will serve to reinforce the progress" in liberalization that Pyongyang has already made, he said.

At the ARF, North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun is expected to hold bilateral meetings with top officials from South Korea, Japan, the United States, as well as at least six other nations.

They include sessions with his South Korean counterpart Lee Joung-binn today followed by a historic meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono.

Mr. Paek also is scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the ARF meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, another first.

For a time it appeared that she would not make the trip because of the Mideast talks. But last night, U.S. officials announced that she would go after all, but they did not say specifically that the meeting with Mr. Paek was still on.

The ARF accession is the latest step in what appears to be a concerted campaign of conciliation with the outside world by reclusive North Korea.

North Korea established diplomatic ties with Italy in January and with Australia in May, and is on the verge of doing so with Canada.

Pyongyang's recent high-profile summit with Seoul introduced its leader, Kim Jong-il, to the world, and North Korea was a major topic of discussion at the weekend summit of the eight leading industrialized nations summit in Japan.

At the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that North Korea was willing to stop building missiles in exchange for help in developing a space program.

Despite Pyongyang's apparent charm offensive, ARF members have not forgotten North Korea's past.

Thailand restored diplomatic ties with North Korea in 1975, but relations between the two countries have been strained in the past two years due to a botched kidnap attempt involving Pyongyang diplomats stationed in Bangkok.

Burma, almost as much of an international pariah as North Korea, has a freeze on diplomatic relations with Pyongyang dating back to the 1983 Rangoon bombing by North Korean agents who were attempting to kill South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. Four South Korean Cabinet ministers perished along with 13 senior officials traveling in Mr. Chun's motorcade.

Japan is seeking information on more than a dozen of its citizens that were believed kidnapped by North Korean agents during the past three decades to teach Japanese to its spies.

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