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Albright Begins Historic Visit to North Korea

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a historic visit by the first ranking American official ever to come to North Korea, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in Pyongyang this morning for talks aimed at improving relations between the U.S. and the North and addressing some of the biggest global challenges facing Washington.

Albright was greeted by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gae Gwan in a low-key ceremony at the airport here. She then headed to the former palace of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, which has been turned into a museum and mausoleum and where Vice Marshal Cho Myong Nok, the No. 2 man to current leader Kim Jong Il, was to meet her. Earlier this month, Cho visited President Clinton at the White House.

Albright’s three-day visit to the Korean peninsula, which is scheduled to include a stopover in Seoul on Wednesday, follows a whirlwind round of diplomacy in recent weeks that has stunned U.S. policymakers, including many who have tried to chip away diplomatically at this isolated Communist nation and its quirky political dynasty for years.

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The initial progress and rapid pace of negotiations are likely to pave the way for a trip to Pyongyang by Clinton next month, an event considered wildly improbable just a couple of months ago. At a time when the administration faces a multitude of foreign policy challenges, North Korea could even prove to be its most notable final success, experts say.

“This visit may be the most important trip of Albright’s tenure,” said Joseph Cirincione, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “This small impoverished nation holds the key to solving several vexing global challenges facing the United States.”

At the top of the agenda are weapons of mass destruction, particularly North Korea’s advanced missile program; terrorism; and defusing tension on the world’s most heavily fortified border, between North and South Korea, which has been a source of instability and sporadic crises in East Asia since the 1950-53 Korean War. About 33,000 Americans died in that war, and 37,000 are still based in the South.

U.S. officials are trying to downplay expectations of a big breakthrough during the visit. Albright has come “to listen, to discuss the range of ideas that would meet our fundamental concerns,” a senior U.S. official told reporters traveling on her plane.

But the momentum has clearly accelerated since a June visit to North Korea by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung opened the way for rapprochement with the outside world. Just days before Albright’s visit, Britain and Germany both announced that they will renew diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, and Spain and Belgium are expected to follow soon.

The European Union also promised aid, including a $17-million package to develop agriculture, and pledged to work toward closer economic and political ties. And Japan is scheduled to hold its own talks with North Korean officials in Beijing next week.

The foundation for Albright’s trip was laid during the visit to Washington by Cho. After those talks, North Korea renounced all forms of terrorism and the two former enemies declared their intention to “formally end the Korean War” by eventually converting an armistice into a permanent treaty.

The two governments now may also be close to an agreement that would remove North Korea from the State Department’s Terrorism List, which by law requires sanctions that bar any sales or exports to targeted nations except of humanitarian goods.

U.S. officials said they would not discuss details of what they are asking from Pyongyang because of the delicacy of negotiations.

“They’re very aware of the steps they need to take,” said the senior official aboard Albright’s plane.

North Korea was last involved in a major terrorist attack in 1987, U.S. officials say, when it masterminded the downing of a South Korean passenger plane near Myanmar that killed all 115 people on board.

The most critical and complex issue for Washington and its allies, however, is North Korea’s missile program.

Pyongyang’s medium-range ballistic missile capabilities have been the leading motive for the United States to consider developing a national missile defense system at a cost of billions of dollars. The threat was underscored when North Korea fired a missile over Japan in 1998.

One of the world’s last Communist states is also a major source of missiles and missile technology. Except for the world’s five nuclear powers, only six countries have medium-range ballistic missiles. North Korea is a major supplier to two of them--Pakistan and Iran.

The ripple effect of brokering a missile deal with North Korea would be profound, U.S. experts say.

“Resolving the North Korean missile issue would remove the rush to deploy a U.S national defense system in Asia as well as key irritants in our relations with China, Russia and our allies,” which all oppose the U.S. scheme, Cirincione said.

It also would address the secondary reason for missile defense, Cirincione said.

“It’d help reduce the arms race in South Asia by at least slowing, if not totally ending, Pakistan’s medium-range missile program, and it wold alleviate the Iran issue, in turn taking pressure off the Mideast,” he said.

So far, North Korea has agreed only to a moratorium on flight testing of long-range missiles.

Even if major progress is made, U.S. officials caution that much work remains to be done on other issues, including human rights and Pyongyang’s conventional weapons and military deployment. North Korea has 4,000 long-range artillery pieces aimed at and within range of Seoul, as well as hundreds of thousands of troops within a few miles of the border between the two Koreas.

As a result, Washington is not likely to set up a new embassy for a year or more. The first step would be a liaison office, much like the one established in Beijing after the thaw in Sino-U.S. relations in the 1970s. The framework for that lower-level exchange of diplomats was established in a 1994 agreement on nuclear arms, when North Korea agreed to give up a nuclear weapons program in exchange for U.S. help in the construction of two nuclear reactors to provide energy.


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