US, North Korea warily eye detente

A historic meeting this week in Washington signals possible thaw in a lingering cold-war relationship.

While the world's attention has been focused on revolt in Yugoslavia and violence in the Middle East, a quiet but historic change is being signaled from another part of the globe.

North Korea this week sent a senior official to meet with President Clinton in what is thought to be the highest-level meeting ever between the two countries.

US officials are careful to emphasize, however, that the process of North Korea's opening to the rest of the world is only beginning. President Kim Jong Il is considered to be unpredictable, and so far the dtente has been characterized more by words than by actions.

"This is a good start," says a US official, "but we're not sure where it's going."

Vice-Admiral Jo Myong-rok alternated between business and military attire as he made the Washington rounds and called for a new relationship with the US based on "friendship and cooperation."

The three-day visit, which concluded yesterday, could be a prelude to normalized diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea, who until recently have been locked in a diplomatic and military stalemate.

Near the conclusion of Mr. Jo's visit, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that she would make a return visit to Pyongyang before a new administration takes office January 20. President Clinton may also visit.

If normal diplomatic ties are eventually established, as many experts predict, the change could have a significant impact on US national-security strategy.

For one, new questions would likely arise about the presence of some 37,000 US troops on the Korean peninsula, which are there both to protect US ally South Korea and to lend general stability to the region. The US fought against the North in the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953.

"We're moving toward the normalization of diplomatic relations [with North Korea]," says Donald Gregg, a former US ambassador to South Korea. "The sooner we start thinking about [adjusting our troop levels in Korea], the better."

Also, improvement in US-North Korea relations could affect US plans to build a national missile defense, a project stalled for the moment but likely to resurface during the next US administration.

North Korea is often cited as the most immediate threat to US security, since it is believed to have nuclear capabilities and some of the missile technology to carry a warhead to US soil - although both programs are supposed to have been halted.

If North Korea is no longer considered a "rogue state," some of the logic of a missile-defense system would be undermined.

First and foremost, the North Koreans are pressing the US to remove them from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

According to the State Department, North Korea continues to provide a safe haven for a group of "Red Army" communists who in 1970 hijacked a Japanese airplane en route to North Korea.

A joint statement by North Korean and US officials, however, indicates that Pyongyang may soon be removed from the list. "[The] US and [North Korea] intend to exchange information regarding international terrorism and to resolve outstanding issues in the this regard between the two sides," says the statement, released before Mr. Jo's visit.

Another potential stumbling block for the resumption of official ties between the US and North Korea is the complicated strategic balance of power in Asia. The US can open up to North Korea only as fast as Pyongyang opens up to other members of the so-called trilateral coordination and oversight group, which includes South Korea and Japan.

But, while South Korean President Kim Dae Jung initiated the process and orchestrated a historic summit in Pyongyang in June, the Japanese have been slower to mend ties with the North, analysts say.

"Japanese relations are more stalled than the others," says Robert Dujarric, a Korea expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "And the US has to take that into account."

In addition to being concerned about the North Korean weapons programs and the Red Army hijackers, the Japanese accuse North Korea of kidnapping 10 Japanese citizens in the '70s, allegedly to use them for military language training. The two countries are expected to hold a new round of talks beginning Oct. 30.

From the US perspective, the dramatic improvement in relations with Pyongyang has caught many observers by surprise.

One unusual twist was finding out how North Korea feels about having US troops in the region. Ironically, the North says it wants the US there. Mr. Kim has reportedly said he fears a power vacuum if the US leaves, in which case China or Japan could exert heightened influence on the peninsula. So far, the US is more than willing to oblige - since the Korean buildup offers them a strong foothold in Asia.

Another surprise has been the speed of the reconciliation process.

"Now that they've established some momentum, I think the North Koreans want to move forward fairly quickly," says Joel Wit, a former State Department official. "They're not going to let this sit for months."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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