North Korean at White House, Continuing a Warming Trend


By David E. Sanger,, October 11, 2000

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 - President Clinton today became the first president to meet with a North Korean official, who carried with him a letter from the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, that White House officials said contained a series of proposals for a further easing of half-century- old tensions on the divided peninsula.

Officials described Mr. Clinton's hour at the White House with Jo Myong Rok, first vice chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, and therefore one of the country's top military leaders, as polite but somewhat stiff.

But the content of the meeting - which included discussion of the North's efforts to become a nuclear power, missile proliferation and the search for the remains of Americans killed or captured in the 1950-53 Korean War - was less remarkable than the fact that it occurred at all.

During the crisis over North Korea's refusal six years ago to allow international inspectors access to its main nuclear weapons complex, Mr. Clinton ordered stealth bombers, Patriot missile batteries and reinforcement troops to South Korea, fearing that a confrontation could result in a resumption of hostilities on the peninsula. That crisis was averted when the North agreed to freeze its nuclear program.

General Jo arrived at the White House today in a gold-braided uniform, which American officials said was intended to denote that for the first time the powerful North Korean military, rather than the country's far weaker diplomatic corps, had taken center stage in the negotiations with the United States.

His arrival also marked the culmination of a six-year-long dance that has included the gradual relaxation of economic sanctions against the North and talks about the control of its missile program.

Mr. Clinton stopped short of describing the contents of the letter from the North Korean leader, but a senior administration official said it was a response to a letter from Mr. Clinton to President Kim delivered last year in Pyongyang by William Perry, the former secretary of defense. "It described Kim's hopes and introduced General Jo, who clearly came here with discussions to talk about the full range of issues," the official said.

Those included American demands that North Korea permanently freeze its missile tests ó it has suspended those tests during talks with Washington and a slow warming with South Korea ó and that it end its missile exports. North Korean officials have periodically suggested that the country would be willing to halt those sales in return for payments from the West, but one official said today that "Jo hasn't yet been specific on that issue."

One of the mysteries of the negotiations with the North is whether Mr. Kim, the son of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, is truly in charge of the talks or is being led by a faction of the military.

Either way, the North has recently surprised the administration by its willingness to come out of its shell. The summit meeting this summer between the leaders of North and South Korea was a milestone; the session today in the Oval Office was, as one of Mr. Clinton's aides said, "unthinkable two years ago."

But the history of negotiations with North Korea is that every step forward is followed by a hesitant step back, as the North's leadership debates how much it can afford to expose its people to influences from South Korea and the West. Clearly, though, the leadership has become intoxicated with the thought that aid and investment may begin to flow into one of the few countries that missed the Asian boom of the last half century.

General Jo started today with a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. At the time, he was dressed in a business suit, but changed into his military uniform before meeting with President Clinton ó the image that he knew would be beamed back home. Later he toured Washington's monuments and even walked though Mount Vernon, the home of General Washington on the banks of the Potomac. Tourists were kept out so that the North Korean official could enjoy a private tour. Tonight he dined with Dr. Albright and Congressional leaders.

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov