- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2001

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Kim Jong-il, North Koreas reclusive leader, agreed yesterday to hold talks with visiting European officials about his mystery-cloaked missile program and tensions between North and South Korea.
Mr. Kim said he would hold the talks today with the European Union delegation, led by Prime Minister Goeran Persson of Sweden, who holds the rotating EU presidency.
Mr. Persson, the first EU chief and Western European leader to visit North Korea, arrived in the secretive, totalitarian state yesterday to a warm welcome by Mr. Kims government.
It included a ceremony at Pyongyangs airport, complete with red carpet, loud-playing band, goose-stepping soldiers, and hundreds of women and men waving pink flowers.
"We have come here for frank discussions on the challenges and prospects for the Korean Peninsula," Mr. Persson said in a speech at a formal government dinner. "We would like to put forward ideas as to how the EU could contribute to reducing tension, possibly offering advice and assistance."
Mr. Persson said the talks also would cover the Norths notorious human rights record, its widespread food shortages and its cautious interest in economic reforms.
No breakthroughs were expected. But the talks come as the Norths ties with South Korea and the United States seem to have soured.
Last year, the leaders of the two Koreas held their first-ever summit in Pyongyang, leading to breakthroughs such as reunions by families who have lived on opposite sides of the worlds most heavily armed border since the 1950-53 Korean War.
But recently, the North abruptly pulled out of three reunification initiatives with the South: a round of Cabinet-level talks, the fielding of a joint table-tennis team for the world championships in Japan, and a round of Red Cross talks. Cooperation on relinking a cross-border railway also has stalled.
At the same time, new strains have developed between the North and the United States, which helps defend the South with 37,000 American soldiers.
Since President Bush took office in January, his administration has voiced skepticism about the North and said the new administration would hold off talks pending a policy review.
Pyongyang responded by cranking up anti-U.S. rhetoric and canceling a number of high-profile contacts with Seoul.
The North has stepped up calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as well as criticism of Washingtons plans for a missile defense system.
Swedish diplomats in North Korea have long represented U.S. interests in the absence of official ties between Washington and Pyongyang. But Mr. Persson stressed he was in the North to represent the interests of the 15-nation European Union.
Mr. Persson told reporters that people shouldnt read too much into the fact that the Bush administration is reviewing U.S. relations with Pyongyang, which he called a natural procedure.
"That doesnt mean that there will be a reversal policy on the peninsula," he told reporters. "We should not, I think, overestimate or exaggerate that policy review."
Visits to Pyongyang by Western leaders are extremely rare but not unprecedented Fidel Castro, president of communist Cuba, came to North Korea in 1986.
The visit, covered by 75 foreign reporters, has given the world its first close look at Mr. Kim and the totalitarian North since former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright visited in October.
Mr. Persson stopped at one point so he could lay a wreath at the foot of a towering bronze statue of Mr. Kims late father, North Koreas founding President Kim Il-sung.

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