President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam today proposed four-way talks--involving the United States, China, South Korea and North Korea--aimed at resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula and leading to a lasting peace agreement between the two Koreas.
The proposal--which has been discussed with but not accepted by China and North Korea--has as its goal the replacement of the 1953 armistice, which ended the Korean War, with a permanent peace between North and South.
Clinton and Kim said the four-way dialogue was being proposed without "deadlines or preconditions." No time or place has been set for the peace talks, nor has any formal agenda been agreed upon, officials said.
Reconciliation on the Korean peninsula--where U.S. troops bolstering the South face Communist soldiers across a heavily fortified border--would eliminate one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
The plan was announced by Clinton and Kim after discussions at a beachfront hotel on this resort island off the southern tip of South Korea. They spoke before a sunny backdrop of bright yellow rapeseed blossoms with a gentle sea beyond.
"North Korea has said it wants peace," Clinton said. "This is our proposal to achieve it, and we hope and expect Pyongyang will take it seriously."
North Korea has not responded to the proposal, and both leaders cautioned that it may be some time before the uncommunicative North expresses its intentions.
"We should not expect an immediate positive response. We will put the offer out there, let it stand and be patient," Clinton said.
Kim noted that the North Korean regime is politically unstable and economically distressed, making an immediate response to the peace proposal unlikely. But he indicated that the North's problems could be an incentive for it to engage in dialogue as a way to reduce its isolation and relieve its severe economic troubles.
"We will be very patient; time is on our side," Kim said. "This may be the last chance that North Korea has to resolve the Korean question."
Yu Suk Ryul of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul said the proposal had been offered before by Henry A. Kissinger but that North Korea had declined. But this time, he said, North Korea might accept because of improving relations with the United States and China's cooperation.
"If accepted, this will greatly contribute to enhancing peace and stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula," he said.
Clinton and Kim also stressed that until a permanent peace treaty is reached, the terms of the 43-year-old armistice will stand and will be enforced by U.S. and South Korean forces.
The idea for the peace conference was broached by South Korea two months ago in secret discussions with White House National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, who traveled to Seoul with no advance publicity.
"It involves ideas first presented by the South Korean side to propose a way the North and South could have a dialogue in which the United States could play an active role. The United States expressed the view that the participation of the People's Republic of China would be extremely helpful," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.
The initiative has been discussed with China, which U.S. officials described as "understanding" but noncommittal. A senior administration official said that the plan was under "active consideration" in Beijing and that he hoped for an answer as early as Friday, when Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Warren Christopher at The Hague.
Japan and Russia were also briefed, and both nations, which have substantial security interests in northeast Asia, were described as "supportive."
The proposal for "two plus two" talks follows a recent series of incursions by North Korean troops into the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. U.S. officials said the idea for the peace conference predated the provocations but would not speculate on the North's motives for increasing tensions in the region on the eve of Clinton's visit to South Korea.
For years, the United States has insisted that the North and South negotiate directly with each other on a permanent peace accord to replace the armistice.
North Korea has tried to force the United States into direct negotiations, in part because it considers the 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea to be a direct threat to its security.
But Clinton insisted repeatedly today that the United States will under no conditions negotiate directly with North Korea.
"Our proposal is simply a way of providing a framework in which the South and the North can ultimately agree on the terms of peace," Clinton said. "In the end, the Korean people will have to make peace for themselves and for their future."
Under the formula, Washington and Beijing would be guarantors of any eventual peace accord. Aides said the talks would include discussions of "confidence-building measures," including a possible pullback of troops from the area surrounding the DMZ and an end to nerve-racking military exercises along the border.
The discussions might also include possible U.S. financial support for North Korea's crippled economy, officials said.
The United States helped broker a 1994 accord that froze North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program. That accord also called for direct talks between the two Koreas, but they have not materialized.
Clinton's initiative is a new diplomatic formula for a peace process, although President Bush made a similar proposal in 1991 that was rejected by Beijing.
A senior Clinton administration official said the proposal has better prospects now than five years ago because of instability in North Korea and China's concerns about its own border with the North.
North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Il, the son of the late strongman Kim Il Sung, is rumored to be incapable of exercising control over the government, which is thought to be firmly in the hands of the military.
In their talks at the Shilla Hotel on a bluff overlooking the East China Sea, Clinton also reaffirmed to South Korean leader Kim that the United States is committed to defending the South.
They also discussed broader regional security questions.
Clinton stopped in South Korea for 10 hours at the beginning of a weeklong trip that will take him to Tokyo, St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Times Tokyo Bureau chief Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.