- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

Missile talks between the United States and North Korea got off to a promising start yesterday despite growing opposition in Washington to a possible visit by President Clinton to the secretive communist state.

Three days of talks opened in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on a North Korean offer to curb its missile program if the United States provides rockets to launch its satellites into outer space.

The missile talks come as Mr. Clinton nears a decision on whether to make a path-breaking trip to North Korea later this month a trip that is already being questioned by critics of the Pyongyang regime as premature.

The Malaysia talks aim to build on "the serious discussions held last week" in Pyongyang between Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, U.S. delegation head Robert Einhorn, assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation, said in Malaysia.

"The meeting was held in a good but serious mood," said Jang Chang Chon, the senior negotiator on the North Korean side.

Mrs. Albright, who held extensive talks with Mr. Kim during an Oct. 23-25 visit to Pyongyang, plans a major address today on her trip.

While U.S. officials are hopeful the visit will come off, the administration has moved cautiously while critics say any visit by a lame-duck president to such a sensitive site is not a good idea.

Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, revealed this week that he and 16 fellow Republican senators had warned Mr. Clinton in an Oct. 24 letter against removing North Korea from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

Removal from the list, which would make North Korea's struggling economy eligible for a broad range of international and U.S. aid programs, has been a top priority for Pyongyang in its talks with the United States.

U.S. and South Korean officials believe North Korea was behind the 1987 bombing of a South Korean passenger jet near Burma in which 115 persons died and the 1983 bombing, also in Burma, that killed seven high-ranking South Korean officials. The airline downing has kept North Korea on the U.S. list of states supporting international terrorism since 1988.

Mr. Thompson yesterday said a presidential visit to North Korea is "unwarranted at this time."

The Tennessee senator said the North Korean regime should live up to past security agreements, sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and halt its missile development and export programs "before North Korean President Kim Jong-il is rewarded with a presidential visit."

Jonathan Pollack, who teaches in the Strategic Research Department of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said a visit by Mr. Clinton could "tie the hands of his successor," especially coming as it does after the election is held.

"My impression is this trip would come together on very short notice, which is definitely not how you want to do these things," Mr. Pollack said. "Call it prudence or caution, but I just wonder if they've fully thought through what will come out of this trip."

But Jon Wolfsthal, a specialist on North Korea and nonproliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a presidential visit could prove useful if it nails down a detailed, verifiable agreement to curb Pyongyang's missile program.

"Yes, there's a lot of risk in moving too quickly, but we've also missed opportunities in the early 1990s to reduce the danger from the North because the international community did not move quickly enough," he said.

Mr. Wolfsthal said a lame-duck Mr. Clinton would be "freed up" to strike a deal with Mr. Kim in a way neither Vice President Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush would be early in their presidencies.

"But as always with arms-control deals, the devil is going to be in the details," he said.

Clinton administration officials deny that a prospective Clinton trip would be insufficiently prepared, noting that intensifying U.S. contacts with the North Korean regime date back to May 1999, when special Clinton envoy William Perry visited Pyongyang.

"It's important for the United States to keep testing the possibilities of changing the relationship with North Korea, along with the South Koreans," Mrs. Albright said earlier this week on ABC's "Good Morning America."

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