North Korean overtures: prelude to detente with US?

Thaw between cold war adversaries raises possibility of a Clinton visit to Pyongyang next month.

When a former rogue state appears to turn friendly, what's a president to do?

Such is the dilemma facing the Clinton administration in its waning months, as it weighs North Korea's newfangled outlook against the potential for nuclear havoc that Chairman Kim Jong Il still holds from his closed, Communist regime.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, briefing her South Korean and Japanese counterparts here yesterday after two days of historic talks in North Korea, indicated that Mr. Kim's willingness to discuss his country's nuclear weapons capabilities is a prerequisite to further progress - and perhaps a ticket to a possible visit next month by President Clinton.

"Obviously the nuclear issue has been one of central importance to us," says Dr. Albright, the first US Secretary of State to visit Pyongyang. "Transparency is key as one thinks about different relations with any country, but especially with a country such as North Korea."

Albright characterized her trip as an exploratory mission to discuss nuclear issues and other key points of dispute with North Korea - such as terrorism, reconciliation with South Korea, the alleged abduction of Japanese nationals, and human rights.

"We have begun to address in a serious way some of our differences with Pyongyang," Albright says. "The path to normalization has not been smooth, and we are still much closer to its beginning than the end."

A team of US missile experts apparently will visit North Korea next week to gather more-concrete information on the weapons program, which Kim has proposed curtailing in return for the ability to launch satellites from a third country, such as Russia or China.

Albright declined to confirm whether Clinton would travel to Pyongyang.

"The question is, is there enough movement to justify him going?" says Joel Wit, a visiting expert on North Korea at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "If they [the Clinton administration] can show progress on the missile issue and they can use the prospect of his visit to leverage further progress, it's worthwhile,"

Particularly as it would come during the last two months of his presidency, some here - as well as in Washington and Tokyo - have questioned the wisdom of making great leaps to open relations with North Korea. But others argue that the Clinton administrationdid not respond quickly enough to several years of peacemaking overtures from North Korea, and that Clinton has had to catch up with recent bold moves toward reconciliation made by Kim. The Communist leader surprised the Clinton administration earlier this month by sending to Washington his No. 2, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to visit the US.

"What's happening has nothing to do with the administration's foreign policy, and has everything to do with North Korean foreign policy," says Wit. "But the administration is reacting to this in the right way, saying, 'let's see if we can take advantage of this and accomplish something.'"

US presidential trips have been used as incentive with other former foes - most notably in President Nixon's 1972 trip to China. And Clinton himself has opted for visits that others deemed dubious, such as his December 1998 trip to the Gaza Strip and West Bank, meant to confer legitimacy on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and to entice him to adhere to a faltering peace process.

Clinton was already planning to visit the site of perhaps the most bitter US military losses in the past century: Vietnam, scheduled for mid-November. Many observers wonder whether Clinton will remain engaged in diplomacy even after leaving office in January - in the style of Jimmy Carter.

Even if he will be in the neighborhood next month, Clinton will probably not agree to a trip to North Korea without first securing some pivotal points that would form the basis of an agreement.

"The US probably wants to have an agreement in which North Korea will end or abandon the development of missiles, or the suspension of launching long-range missiles for an indefinite period," says Masao Okonogi, an expert on modern Korean history at Keio University in Tokyo. "The Clinton administration will leave the next step - normalizing relations and setting up an embassy - to the next administration."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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