Cho Myong-nok became the first North Korean official to meet a U.S. president yesterday at a White House meeting in which President Clinton outlined U.S. concerns about terrorism and missile proliferation.
Mr. Cho, the second most powerful man in North Korea, also met with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on the first day of a historic two-day visit to ease tensions between the two Cold War adversaries.
During a 45-minute White House meeting, characterized by U.S. officials as cordial, Mr. Clinton described U.S. concerns, including a history of state-sponsored terrorism, nuclear weapons, missile proliferation, the return of remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War and U.S. food aid.
The White House meeting followed a 30-minute courtesy call with Mrs. Albright at the State Department. Before going to the White House, Mr. Cho changed from his business suit into his military uniform for his meeting with the president.
As the most senior military adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Mr. Cho is believed to wield more power in the Communist state than civilian officials, such as its nominal president, Kim Young-nam.
“The president and vice marshal Cho had a very positive, direct and warm meeting this morning,” Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s North Korea policy coordinator and counselor, said after the White House meeting.
Miss Sherman said the fact that North Korea had sent so senior a military official, versed in nuclear and proliferation issues, who was also the personal envoy for Mr. Kim, indicated that North Korea’s military, as well as civilian elite, were eager for better relations.
She said Mr. Cho had given Mr. Clinton a letter from Mr. Kim.
Careful not to put too much expectation on the visit, Miss Sherman said the meetings were not “not a negotiating session. This was not a substantive bilateral.”
She said the president and Mr. Cho shook hands at the end of the session, but photographers recording the meeting said the tension in the room was palpable.
The two main items for discussion during Mr. Cho’s visit, which included “working-level” meetings at the State Department yesterday and meetings at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen today, are state-sponsored terrorism and missile proliferation.
On Friday, after talks in New York, North Korea and the United States issued a joint statement to work toward removing North Korea from a U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.
The progress there paved the way for yesterday’s.
The United States, which has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, has sought a high-level visit from North Korea since it sent former Defense Secretary William Perry there last year.
The White House stressed that “continued engagement” was the course it was taking in easing tensions.
“We obviously are going to stress how critical we think it is that they continue the missile flight test moratorium. We’ll be discussing their desire to take some steps to be removed from the terrorist list,” White House spokesman Jake Siewert said as the meeting started.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations but have been talking about opening liaison offices in Washington and the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, as a first step toward exchanging ambassadors. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that would be discussed during the visit.
Mr. Boucher also said the issue of food aid would be discussed. He said the United States had given North Korea 550,000 tons in humanitarian aid in the past year.
The thaw in relations between North Korea and the United States comes on the heels of a rapprochement between North and South Korea, which began with the June summit between North Korea’s Mr. Kim and the South’s President Kim Dae-jung.