- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

PYONGYANG, North Korea Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright yesterday held unprecedented talks with North Korea's reclusive leader, saying that the road to "fully normal relations remains uphill," but that her visit was a start.
Mrs. Albright's talks with Kim Jong-il were aimed at laying the groundwork for a possible visit by President Clinton to the cloistered state. The United States maintains 37,000 American troops in South Korea as a deterrent against another invasion by North Korea like the one in June 1950 that sparked the Korean War.
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said that while Mrs. Albright's discussions with Mr. Kim were "substantive and useful," Mr. Clinton would not make a final decision about whether he will visit until Mrs. Albright returns.
Mr. Kim, derided for years by South Korean intelligence as an impulsive, squeaky-voiced recluse, yesterday appeared anything but.
With the beaming smile of an engaging host, he clasped Mrs. Albright's hand firmly, and with a deep, confident voice, welcomed his guest with praise for her efforts to overcome years of enmity between the two rivals.
"This is a new one from a historical point of view. I am really very happy," said Mr. Kim as he faced Mrs. Albright across the table in an ornate room of marble columns and plush lime green carpet.
The two met for more than three hours and were slated to meet again today in an event that would have seemed impossible just a few months ago.
High-level defectors have fingered Mr. Kim as the mastermind of the 1987 bombing of a South Korean passenger jet near Burma in which 115 persons died and the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, 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.
"There is a great distance between our two lands, but as we are starting to discover through our visits, distance is no barrier to closer ties," Mrs. Albright said at a banquet hosted by Mr. Kim.
Toasts at a lavish guest house captured the sense of promise, yet awkwardness, in the tentative thaw. Mrs. Albright said "the road to fully normal relations remains uphill," but her visit is a start.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to elaborate on the subjects discussed, but U.S. officials have said the issues include nuclear and missile proliferation, terrorism, and food aid, as well as the possibility of a visit by Mr. Clinton before he leaves the presidency.
Just hours before Mrs. Albright's visit got under way, China's defense minister, Chi Haotian, arrived in Pyongyang for a long-planned visit aimed at "friendly talks."
The presence of Mr. Chi so close to Mrs. Albright's negotiations revived foreign speculation that China was seeking to reinforce its influence as North Korea opens up to the rest of the world.
Mrs. Albright began her day yesterday with a stop at a marble mausoleum housing the body of President Kim Il-sung, the current leader's father.
The visit was problematic because Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea in 1950, triggering a three-year war with rival South Korea in which more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers died.
Mrs. Albright paused for a moment of silence, forgoing the custom of bowing before the body from four directions.
"She's quite aware of the history," Mr. Boucher said. "At the same time, she's on a visit, and part of a visit is to understand what is important to your host, and I think it was in that regard that she went."
Her next stop was at a kindergarten, where she danced with a courtyard full of singing children who have been kept alive for the past four years with grain and milk rations supplied by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP).
Since 1995, the United States has contributed more than 1.2 million tons of grain to the WFP at a cost of about $425 million.
WFP officials said that the food aid has helped end the famine, but that the nation remains in a precarious position, with this year's harvest sharply lower because of a dry spring that stunted the growth of this year's corn and rice crops.
The WFP feeds about 8 million, or about one in three, North Koreans.
WFP Country Director Douglas Broderick said he anticipated additional appeals for aid to eliminate this year's shortfall.
North Korea's dependence on outside aid, he said, has helped prod the nation out of its longtime isolation and may be partly responsible for efforts to improve relations with other nations.
"Food aid has opened up the door and has allowed a real diplomatic breakthrough and let's hope that this continues," Mr. Broderick said.
North Korea puts the death toll from the famine of the late 1990s in the hundreds of thousands, but credible estimates by outsiders place the toll at 2 million and possibly higher.
Of particular concern to Washington is North Korea's development of a three-stage rocket capable of hitting the United States, technology it has sold to Iran, Syria and other rogue nations.
A successful launch of the missile in 1998 sparked much of the present U.S. drive to develop a national missile defense.
Though North Korea has promised to forgo future missile tests as it negotiates with Washington, U.S. officials have said further progress is one factor that could determine whether Mr. Clinton visits.
The highlight of the day came with a spectacular evening performance by estimates of as many as 100,000 dancers, acrobats and karate experts at Pyongyang's May Day Stadium.
Perhaps a thousand performers at a time flooded the field in wave after wave of precisely choreographed displays of children's ballet, folk ballet, dancing fairies, karate-chopping dancers and dancing soldiers, some with bayoneted rifles.
In the 90-minute-long spectacle, performers repeatedly swooned toward the stage where Mrs. Albright sat with Mr. Kim, in a display of adulation toward the man known here as the "Dear Leader."
After the performance ended, all Mrs. Albright could say was, "Amazing."

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