By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
PYONGYANG, North Korea – Putting aside a half-century of acrimony, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il engaged in unprecedented talks today aimed at laying the groundwork for a visit by President Clinton to one of the last bastions of the Cold War.
With a firm handshake, Albright and Kim moved their two nations – one democratic, the other a famously cloistered communist state – a bit closer together.
Toasts at a lavish guest house captured the sense of promise, yet awkwardness, in the tentative thaw. Albright said “the road to fully normal relations remains uphill,” but her visit is a start.
Kim’s top aide, Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok, offering a toast to Albright, saying improved relations with Washington are “very important to the security of the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region as well.”
“I am really very happy,” Kim said earlier in welcoming the first ever visit by a U.S. secretary of state.
Responded Albright, “I’m very glad to be here in your beautiful city.”
The two spoke for three hours, with a 15-minute break, and during the meeting Albright gave Kim a letter from Clinton anticipating further developments in bilateral relations. Later they attended the dinner hosted by Jo, who initiated the diplomatic opening with a visit to Washington two weeks ago.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Albright’s trip is a historic step but there are “a lot of things that have to be discussed, a lot of issues that have to be dealt with.”
“Being able to deal successfully with these issues is the key to having a successful visit by the president,” he said. North Korea’s missile program is one such issue, and Washington also wants the regime to break any remaining links with terrorism.
Albright arrived to a low-key arrival ceremony that belied the significance of her visit. Asked if the United States was moving too quickly in the relationship with North Korea, she said, “We’re not moving faster than it makes sense.”
Images of Kim’s father and North Korea founder Kim Il Sung were everywhere as Albright traveled from the airport to downtown, a reminder of the country’s communist origins more than 50 years ago. The face of the “Great Leader,” as he is called, beamed from an airport mural, from billboards and from signs adorning buildings along Albright’s route.
Her first stop was at the Kim Il Sung Palace, which was converted into a mausoleum after his death in 1994.
Despite the overtures inherent in Albright’s visit and the efforts to set up one by Clinton, U.S. officials warned in advance that serious differences remained between the two nations.
Of primary concern is North Korea’s missile development program and its export of missiles to Iran and Syria. Albright raised those issues with Kim but officials said no agreements are expected.
North Korea has been included on the U.S. list of states supporting international terrorism since January 1988, after North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner, KAL Flight 858, in November 1987, killing 115 people.
South Korean officials welcomed the Albright trip. “We must consider as desirable the North Korean moves to set up new relations with the outside world,” said presidential spokesman Park Joon-young.
Some critics feared, however, the visit might make Pyongyang less willing to talk to the South.
Albright and Kim met in the luxury guest house where she was staying. Plush carpet lined the floors, and crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling.
North Korea is suffering from a severe food shortage, and Albright visited a kindergarten in the Rang Nang District that participates in the U.N. World Food Program
The kindergarten children, lined up in neat rows on a dirt playground, performed traditional dances for Albright, who mimicked their motions. A small boy hid behind a white sack of U.S.-donated wheat while a classmate tossed the white powder at him.
The United States has contributed nearly 1.5 million tons of food to the U.N. program, Albright said.
She told the food program staff: “Your work is vital because these children and their brothers and sisters around the country should be able to grow up without fear of emergency shortages and famine. And international donors should be assured that the supplies they send are used for the purposes intended.”
Later, Kim asked her how the kindergarten visit went. “I danced with the children. I’m very satisfied,” she said.
Security was tight in North Korea’s traditionally closed society. Journalists were admonished not to explore the city on their own. “You must submit to a schedule,” a senior Information Ministry official told them.
As Clinton seeks to build a foreign policy legacy in the waning days of his administration, his opening toward North Korea seems more promising than any other, a turn of events few would have predicted six years ago when the two countries seemed close to war.
Kim has shown a surprise willingness to reciprocate to Clinton’s moves to seek accommodation. He has been reaching out not only to the United States but to other countries, most notably South Korea.
In a communique issued two weeks ago at the conclusion of Jo’s visit to Washington, the nations pledged “to take steps to fundamentally improve their bilateral relations in the interests of enhancing peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Kim thanked Albright for her making the arrangements for Jo’s visit and ensuring that it went smoothly.
The threat of war has hung over the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953. About 37,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea.
“The U.S. government is very clear, as is the Republic of Korea, that American military forces need to remain in Korea even after there is a reduction in tension and even if there is reunification on the Korean peninsula,” State Department official Morton Halperin said today during a visit to Canberra, Australia.
“We are at a historic moment in which the last remaining Cold War confrontation may finally be coming to an end,” he said. “As we move forward we need to move carefully, we need to remember that there is still a very serious North Korean military threat on the peninsula.”
The United States is considering the creation of a national missile defense, partly out of concern that North Korea may someday direct ICBM’s at American cities.
North Korea has for years ignored American efforts to stop it from exporting missiles. There are indications that Pyongyang may be beginning to listen to those concerns.
Albright’s visit to North Korea followed one by China’s defense minister, Gen. Chi Haotian. In meetings Sunday with North Korea’s defense minister, Vice Marshal Kim Il Chol, Chi promised that China would maintain strong military ties with Pyongyang, according to Chinese state media.
China has ties with both North and South Korea.
After two days of talks in North Korea, Albright planned to fly across the Demilitarized Zone to Seoul to brief senior officials from Japan and South Korea. Both nations continue to be nervous about North Korea’s military.
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