- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

PYONGYANG, North Korea The nation that survived the Cold War with its communist ideology intact became a bit less hostile toward its sworn enemy, the United States, with the arrival today of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

In a symbolic act of reconciliation, Mrs. Albright became the highest-ranking U.S. official to set foot in North Korea, landing in the chilly autumn mist at Pyongyang's airport to begin two days of talks.

Her agenda includes a meeting with the country's supreme leader, Kim Jong-il whose official title is chairman of the National Defense Commission and a full plate of issues including missile proliferation, terrorism and the promise of full diplomatic relations with Washington.

A visit to Washington this month by North Korea's No. 2 official, Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, that included a White House meeting with President Clinton, ended with a statement that the two countries "are prepared to undertake a new direction in their relations."

Mrs. Albright's reciprocal visit comes with the prospect of a more cherished prize for North Korea a possible follow-up visit by Mr. Clinton during his final days in office.

"We still believe there are very significant steps that have to be taken to meet the concerns the United States has," a senior State Department official aboard Mrs. Albright's plane told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We have reason to believe that because of discussions that we have had that North Korea may be prepared to take some very serious steps."

Mrs. Albright was greeted at Pyongyang's airport shortly after dawn by North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kim Gye-gwan. An 8-year-old boy wearing a red kerchief around his neck presented her with a bouquet of flowers. She made no comments to reporters upon arrival.

Her motorcade, which included vehicles driven up from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, drove down deserted boulevards to the Kim Il-sung Palace, where the remains of the longtime North Korean leader are on display. The sprawling edifice was once used as a meeting palace for foreign dignitaries, but was converted to a mausoleum after Mr. Kim's death.

The United States maintains 37,000 American troops in South Korea on the edge of a tense no-man's land that divides the peninsula in two.

In the years since the Korean War, U.S. troops have become a fixture in the South, a deterrent against another North Korean invasion like that of June 1950 that came dangerously close to triggering a third world war.

Just six years ago, a dispute over North Korean attempts to produce nuclear weapons again raised the specter of a war involving the United States.

Lately, North Korea's belligerence and self-imposed isolation has faded dramatically with a successful push to establish diplomatic ties with U.S. allies such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany and Italy.

The effort followed a dramatic summit in June, in which South Korean President Kim Dae-jung traveled to Pyongyang, a trip that helped him earn this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

In the present climate of conciliation, the United States and North Korea are now negotiating to open diplomatic offices in each other's capitals and to end North Korea's listing on a U.S. compilation of nations that sponsor terrorism.

Removal of Pyongyang from the list would make North Korea eligible for aid from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to help resuscitate a collapsed, famine-wracked economy.

But tough issues like the proliferation of missiles and nuclear weapons are likely to bedevil any rapprochement.

Critics warn that the Clinton administration, by feting North Korea's present desire for international acceptance, will create a dangerous incentive for other states to develop weapons of mass destruction to barter away for aid from Washington.

Both issues have figured, at least indirectly, in Washington's provision of food aid to help alleviate a famine in which an estimated 2 million North Koreans may have perished in the past decade.

Moreover, North Korea's successful launching of a three-stage rocket in 1998 not only underscored its role in world missile proliferation but also accelerated a push in Washington to build a national missile defense.

North Korea contends that missile sales to countries like Iran provide it with a needed source of foreign currency. It initially offered to stop such sales in exchange for billions of dollars in U.S. aid an offer Washington turned down.

In addition, U.S. consideration of a missile defense has driven a wedge between Washington and its NATO allies, as well as with Russia and China.

For now, the nuclear and missile threats appear to have eased with Pyongyang's drive for global acceptance.

Marshal Jo reaffirmed during his visit to Washington North Korea's commitment to abide by a 1994 agreement that froze its nuclear program in exchange for two modern atomic-power stations financed by South Korea and Japan.

In addition, North Korea "informed the U.S. that it will not launch long-range missiles of any kind while talks on the missile issue continue," according to a joint statement issued after the meeting between Mr. Clinton and Marshal Jo.

Despite Pyongyang's efforts to improve ties with the outside world, apprehension over the strategy was evident yesterday when a group of three dozen reporters arrived on a chartered flight from Beijing.

Officials assigned one guide to every two reporters, forbade all picture taking without permission and ordered visitors to stick with Mrs. Albright and write only about her visit.

Obviously uncomfortable in the presence of the largest contingent of Western reporters ever to descend on Pyongyang, one guide explained that the restrictions were "to protect" the visitors.

Ever since North Korea was created from the zone occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, its people have been fed a steady diet of propaganda depicting the United States as a "war monger" and its South Korean ally as a "U.S. puppet."

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