Secretary of State Madeleine Albright set foot in North Korea yesterday, the highest-level visit of any US official to a nation deemed the world's most obscure communist regime and one of its most unpredictable.
For most of the past half century, and even a mere year ago, none of this would have seemed possible. But in a fast-moving era in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seeking to build ties with the international community - and his South Korean counterpart, President Kim Dae Jung, was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North - little seems unthinkable.
After a brief stop at the palace that honors Kim Jong Il's father and a visit to a kindergarten that receives World Food Program assistance, Dr. Albright met with Chairman Kim yesterday for three hours, delivering a letter from President Clinton with his expectations for further relations with North Korea.
Although US officials' expectations for Albright's visit are limited, some observers are concerned that the Clinton administration seems too keen to shine its own rays on Pyongyang in the twilight of Mr. Clinton's presidency. Among those who think that the reconciliation process is moving a little too fast are Washington policymakers who still view Kim Jong Il as a yet-unrepentant nuclear threat, South Korean opposition politicians who mistrust their president's keenness to make amends with their northern brethren, and neighboring Japan, which feels uncomfortably out of the loop.
"The US is becoming softer and softer, day by day, and after Albright visits Pyongyang, within a few weeks, President Clinton may visit," says Hideshi Takesada, an expert on North Korea at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. "This means de facto normalization." Albright is expected to give Clinton her recommendation on a presidential visit after her two-day trip.
"Officially, the Japanese government will say we will welcome the process, but in their hearts, the Japanese people will become more isolated and frustrated because there's no solution on the missile issue," adds Professor Takesada.
Japan has moved more slowly than other powers to build relations with North Korea and remains leery of both its ability to threaten its neighbors, as well as the potential challenges a united Korea could present Japan.
US officials are quick to point out that this is hardly an inauguration of full diplomatic ties. "We are not going to go faster than it makes sense in terms of US interests," Albright told reporters yesterday. Rather, her trip is aimed at exploring how serious North Korea is about its expressed willingness to change. In particular, Albright will use the opportunity to look more deeply into Kim Jong Il's apparent offer to dismantle North Korea's missile program in exchange for satellite-launching capabilities, to be provided by a third country.
State Department officials have recently sounded less than optimistic about the likelihood of North Korea being ready to join the family of nations. North Korea has been on the US list of countries sponsoring international terrorism since 1988. Officials add, however, that Washington should at least show willingness to walk through the door being held open by Kim.
"Given the nature of the regime, we have to be skeptical of chances for rapid progress," says one State Department official. But of North Korea's missiles - one of which it test-fired over the Northern Pacific in August 1998 - the official adds: "Those are a threat, and we take them seriously." Four years earlier, North Korea had pledged to freeze and dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. Says the official, "We now have an opportunity to address those threats directly with the North Koreans."
Still, some feel that this fast diplomatic push on the part of the Clinton administration is in part an attempt to resurrect America's role in the reconciliation process on the Korean Peninsula. Under his helm, former Defense Secretary William Perry, Clinton's special envoy, last year advocated normalizing relations if it could be verified that the North did not have a nuclear- weapons program and if it would halt development and export of nuclear missiles. But South Korea's peacemaking efforts overshadowed Washington's, surprising the State Department with an announcement in April that the two Koreas would hold a summit this June - which proved enormously successful.
"There are some competitive links between the Kim Dae Jung process and Perry process, and Mr. Kim Dae Jung succeeded in getting his revenge against the Perry process," Takesada adds.
Playing catch-up with South and North Korea's peace moves leaves the Clinton administration looking short of its goals to make America the "indispensible nation" around the globe. And, especially at a time when the Middle East - the foreign policy problem in which Clinton has invested perhaps the greatest amount of his personal time - seems be sliding deeper into conflict, a chance to claim a success on the Korean Peninsula looks even more attractive.
But that, some analysts say, may have less to do with US policymaking than with the apparent changes in the outlook of Kim Jong Il, until a few months ago viewed as an eccentric recluse.
"This is really a major leap," says Ron Spector, a professor of history and international relations at George Washington University, currently serving at the faculty of Keio University in Tokyo. "He [Clinton] probably will get credit for this, but I don't think it's through anything he did. I don't think he came up with any breakthrough formulas."
Material from wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society