- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

BANGKOK North Korea's presence dominated a security forum in Southeast Asia Thursday with European and Asian nations lining up to recognize the reclusive state in a courtship that threatens to leave the United States among the last to establish relations.

With Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright en route to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum for an unprecedented meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun, the group formally inducted the communist state as its 24th member.

"I think that our country's admission to the [ASEAN Regional Forum] reflects the common desire … to establish normal relations and promote amity and harmony," Mr. Paek said in yet another first an address by a top North Korean official at a high-profile international event.

One day earlier, Canada established diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, joining Italy, Australia and the Philippines, which have formally recognized North Korea in recent months.

Canada has long irritated the United States by maintaining diplomatic ties and trade relations with Cuba.

Diplomats Thursday told The Washington Times that Japan is also preparing to establish relations with North Korea.

"North Korea's recent charm offensive, which includes last month's landmark summit with Seoul, is a sign that doors and windows are opening in the North," said Chris Patten, former colonial governor of Hong Kong and now the European Union's (EU) commissioner for external affairs.

Mr. Patten and other EU delegates have held informal meetings here with Mr. Paek as did Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono on the sidelines of the forum.

Diplomats said Mr. Kono and Mr. Paek agreed to meet again in September and that Japan would establish ties then, if not earlier.

As an initial overture to Pyongyang, Tokyo will consider sending food aid to the North, which has suffered from a prolonged famine.

The forum, known by the acronym ARF, is a security working group comprising 10 ASEAN nations and 14 other countries with security interests in Asia, including the United States, Canada and Japan.

Other key nations, including several EU members, probably will establish ties with Pyongyang, diplomats said.

"North Korea has made a concerted choice to open up, and nations must respond to Pyongyang's overtures," Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy told reporters.

Mr. Axworthy said Canada still had major doubts about North Korea's willingness to play by international norms. But he added that Canada had recognized Pyongyang in the hopes of using its new ties to push North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on nonproliferation, human rights and economic development.

"Only by dealing directly with North Korea over their missile sales and chemical weapons can we use the channels to try and persuade them to a more concrete commitment to nonproliferation," he said.

At last weekend's summit of the eight leading industrialized nations in Japan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said North Korea was willing to stop selling missiles in exchange for help in developing a space program.

North Korea's missile program is a primary concern of outsiders. In August 1998, it successfully launched a multistage rocket into the Pacific, a test that especially alarmed Washington because it demonstrated a capability of hitting Alaska and Hawaii.

North Korean missiles are cited in Washington as a key reason for the push to develop missile defenses for the United States and to protect U.S. troops based in the Pacific.

Pyongyang, which maintains a lucrative business selling missiles and related technology to other nations, is demanding $1 billion annually from the United States to halt missile-related exports.

Mrs. Albright's meeting with the North Korean foreign minister today will be the highest-level contact ever between Washington and Pyongyang.

The State Department described the talks as introductory, and said no major deals were expected.

Many U.S.-Korea observers attending the forum said the Albright-Paek meeting will be largely symbolic, because North Korea remains too bellicose for the United States to develop closer ties anytime soon.

While Mr. Paek pledged Thursday to work for peace, he also told the ARF that peace on the Korean peninsula depends on terminating the outside forces stationed there, a pointed jab at the United States and the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Ministers touched on a wide range of concerns, including instability in Indonesia and the disputed mineral-rich islands in the South China Sea. They also debated so-called soft security threats, like piracy and trafficking in drugs, arms and human beings.

The forum hotly debated missile defense systems planned by the United States largely against the threat posed by North Korea.

Russia issued a statement saying it was being joined by China and Vietnam in opposing a reported U.S. proposal to expand a planned theater missile defense originally to protect U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea to cover all of East Asia.

"The Americans are actively promoting the idea of expanding the theater anti-missile defense system, which would include not only Northeast Asia but also Southeast Asia," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in a statement.

A wider system would remove all ambiguity about whether the shield would cover Taiwan and disputed islands in the South China Sea. Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province and considers defense aid as interference in China's internal affairs.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, standing in for Mrs. Albright, said later that the theater defense would "not necessarily, certainly not in the current context," cover Southeast Asia.

"No decisions have been made in that regard with respect to this region, so I don't know what he [Mr. Ivanov] is talking about," Mr. Talbott said.

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