In a day of historic dialogue and spectacular pageantry, reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Monday for talks on promoting detente between their longtime rival nations. U.S. officials described the sessions as "substantive" and "very useful."
Neither side divulged specifics about the initial negotiations, which were unexpectedly moved up a day by the North Koreans to allow more face-to-face time between Kim and Albright. But the two clearly felt comfortable with each other after three hours of intense talks, two hours at a flashy spectacle resembling a Super Bowl halftime show and an Olympics opening ceremony combined, and a long working dinner.
"There is great distance between our two lands, but we are starting to discover to our benefit that there is no barrier to improving ties," Albright said in a toast at the dinner.
The most critical issues in the delicate negotiations are North Korea's weapons of mass destruction, particularly its advanced ballistic missile program; terrorism; and the future of the Korean peninsula. Albright acknowledged that the differences can't be eliminated overnight. She said the two sides should be pragmatic and understand that the road to full diplomatic ties "remains uphill."
Albright also said that the two sides must learn from the past that confrontation is no longer the path to progress and that they must follow through on pledges to eliminate tension based on military threats, a reference to Pyongyang's nuclear capability and advanced ballistic missiles. They must build confidence by opening "new avenues of communication, commerce and contacts," she said.
"We must each do our part if the Cold War is truly to end," Albright added. And in language that American officials conceded would have been unthinkable even a few months ago, she added: "America's symbol is the eagle, a bird that soars, and North Korea's pride are mountains that scrape the skies. There is no obstacle that we cannot overcome if we make a strategic decision to do so together."
The result, she said, could be reconciliation and reunification of the Korean peninsula and "more normal and prosperous relations" between Washington and Pyongyang.
For the North Koreans, Vice Marshal Cho Myong Nok, who is the country's second-most-powerful official, toasted Albright's visit as an "important step forward" to promote "peace, detente and reconciliation."
Establishing good relations is "entirely in the interests" of both countries but is also important for security on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia, he said.
Earlier in the day, when she arrived for talks with Kim at a government guest house adorned with crystal chandeliers, lime green carpet, pink and white orchids, and caged parakeets, Albright denied that the breathtaking pace of the U.S.-North Korean initiative was too fast, as some critics contend.
The improving relationship between the long-standing rivals was evident Monday when Albright visited a kindergarten where children benefit from U.S. food aid. About 67% of international food aid to North Korea comes from the United States, and it has saved hundreds of thousands--and maybe millions--of lives, said Douglas Broderick, head of the U.N. World Food Program's office in Pyongyang.
Washington began sending food in 1995 after a pact that froze North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for aid in building nuclear reactors to provide energy. Pyongyang agreed to the deal in part because of a persistent economic decline that created massive food shortages.
According to a 1998 UNICEF survey, about 62% of North Korea's children suffered from chronic malnutrition or stunted growth, while 16% suffered from severe wasting or acute malnutrition. North Korea was making a comeback last year after good crops, but this year it was hit hard by a summer drought.
In August and September, flooding caused massive destruction of homes and infrastructure. The combined losses caused by the drought and flooding total about $6 billion for one of the world's most impoverished countries.
Although malnutrition is not as rampant as it was two years ago, the food situation is still "quite perilous," Broderick said, and as a result, U.S. food aid has further opened the door for the diplomatic thaw.
At Jongbeck School No. 2, where U.S. food aid now provides three basic meals for the children, Albright was serenaded by 5- and 6-year-olds. The secretary joined in a national dance.
But the opening day of talks also reflected ongoing differences between the two nations. The cult of the two Kims, North Korea's father-and-son dictators, was evident when Albright was asked to make her opening stop at the former palace of Kim Il Sung, the country's founding father. The palace has been converted into a museum and mausoleum for the so-called Great Leader, who died six years ago.
The elder Kim, who ruled during the 1950-53 war in which about 33,000 Americans lost their lives, lies in a glass casket, much like Mao Tse-tung in Beijing and Vladimir Lenin in Moscow. Albright was escorted past the casket, although she did not lay a wreath, U.S. officials said.
The strict Stalinist roots of this isolated country also were evident after the initial round of talks when the regime hosted a pageant in the national stadium. About 100,000 young musicians, dancers, singers, gymnasts and others performed a 70-minute extravaganza of routines, each against a backdrop of pictures formed by tens of thousands of hand-held placards.
Most of the images reflected the cult of the two Kims, but the placards also were used to show long-range missiles, the most contentious issue facing negotiators and the prime reason the U.S. is considering a national missile defense system.
L.A. KOREANS HOPE
Los Angeles Koreans are cautious but hopeful about today's diplomacy in North Korea. B2