Closing ranks against a common concern, the United States, Japan and South Korea fervently appealed to the isolated regime in North Korea today to "seize the opportunity" for better relations with the outside world, including diplomatic recognition and an easing of sanctions.
But the top diplomats for the three allies also sternly warned the North that it will face severe repercussions, including cuts in aid, trade and travel, if it carries out bellicose threats to launch a new long-range ballistic missile over the Pacific. Military experts say the missile could reach Alaska and Hawaii.
The carrot-and-stick message was delivered here as U.S. officials scrambled to clarify an unusual North Korean radio broadcast Monday. Using language rarely heard from Pyongyang, the capital, a Foreign Ministry spokesman appeared to significantly soften the Communist regime's standard bitter diatribe against Washington and its democratic allies in Asia.
"We do not want to regard the United States as the sworn enemy, and if the U.S. recognizes our sovereignty and approaches us with good faith, we are ready to develop relations on the principle of equality and mutual benefit," the official told the Korean Central News Agency, according to wire reports.
A senior Clinton administration official said that if the translation is accurate, "we would see that as a very positive sign" that could signal a breakthrough for long-frustrated efforts by the United States and other nations to lower tensions on the heavily armed Korean peninsula.
In May, White House special envoy William J. Perry visited Pyongyang and delivered a letter from President Clinton addressed to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il. Officials later said the letter, which has not been made public, offered to unravel a tight web of sanctions and extend diplomatic recognition if the North halts the development, export and testing of ballistic missiles and abandons all efforts to build nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.
In Singapore today, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Pyongyang, which has yet to formally respond to Perry's visit, to embrace the proposal and join the international community. "There has never been a better time than this," she said at a joint news conference with South Korea's foreign minister, Hong Soon Young, and Japan's foreign minister, Masahiko Komura.
"Our goal is a Korean peninsula that is stable, increasingly prosperous and moving toward permanent reconciliation," Albright said.
U.S. officials have warned that a missile launch would scuttle the Perry initiative and make it more difficult for Washington to continue a massive humanitarian aid effort designed to battle widespread hunger in the poverty-stricken nation.
At the news conference here, South Korea's envoy said Pyongyang "will enjoy many benefits" if it accepts the U.S. proposal. But if North Korea fires the missile, he said, Seoul will cut billions of dollars worth of investments, tourist ventures and development aid.
Japan's envoy said Tokyo also may cut "flows of goods, people and money" to the North. But in the only sign that the three allies are not acting in concert, Komura warned that "given the sentiment of the Japanese people, it will be extremely difficult" for Japan to meet its pledge to contribute $1 billion toward an international consortium building two nuclear reactors in North Korea.
Pyongyang agreed in 1994 to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for the two light-water reactors and for supplies of fuel oil until they are operational.
Washington and Seoul have agreed not to abandon the program, however, insisting that the $5-billion effort is the best way to keep Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development in check.
U.S. officials said North Korea apparently has completed preparations to launch its new Taepodong 2 missile but hasn't made the political decision yet to do so.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen delivered a similar warning to North Korea in Tokyo, where he arrived Monday for a three-day visit. Japan has increased its military profile since August, when Pyongyang unexpectedly tested its Taepodong 1, a new medium-range rocket that roared over northern Japan with a small satellite payload before it plummeted into the central Pacific.
Concern over North Korea's intentions was a major topic of discussion here Monday among the 22 nations attending the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations forum.