New era opens in ties to Koreas North's official to hold first talks in Washington

November 26, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kim Gye-gwan, walks through a glass door in Foggy Bottom this morning, he will make history of a sort.

Kim will arrive for the highest-level meeting ever at the State Department between the United States and a nation that is both the world's last Stalinist stronghold and an implacable enemy of a close American ally.

The actual location may seem unremarkable, given that Kim has previously met at the United Nations headquarters in New York with his U.S. counterpart, Charles Kartman, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

But it makes a difference to North Koreans to be received officially in the U.S. capital, where they were once unwelcome. And it serves as a metaphor for Washington's difficult relationship with Pyongyang: a series of small steps that has yet to produce sizable gains but may well have averted disaster on a dangerous peninsula where 37,000 U.S. troops watch for attack from the North.

The meeting is also important for its timing.

It comes after North Korea agreed last week to join the United States, South Korea and China in talks aimed at finally bringing full peace to the Korean peninsula nearly 45 years after an armistice halted fighting. The talks are due to start Dec. 9 in Geneva, nine days before South Koreans hold a presidential election.

"It's a very significant meeting because the State Department has shied away from inviting high-level North Koreans to meet at State," said Selig S. Harrison, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington who has visited North Korea five times. "Until they got the four-power talks, there was a reluctance to move in that direction."

Among Asia specialists, Harrison is one of those most encouraged by the possibility of improved U.S.-North Korean ties.

Today's talks will at least touch on the main issues between the United States and North Korea -- the threat that Pyongyang poses to its surrounding region and its desperate need for economic help, after a series of natural disasters. Some aid agencies have warned that North Korea may be on the brink of widespread starvation.

This equation is summed up by Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, as "Feed us or we'll kill you."

Americans are expected to use the talks to press Pyongyang to halt the export of missiles to the Middle East and to stop developing a longer-range missile capable of reaching Japan. The North isn't likely to agree. But one sign of progress might be a date to resume a series of negotiations on the weapons.

The two sides will also discuss the possibility of repatriating the remains of U.S. soldiers missing since the 1950-1953 Korean War and establishing liaison offices in each other's capitals, a step toward formal diplomatic relations.

Liaison offices have been in the works for some time. Washington has irritated Pyongyang, Harrison said, by subletting office space in North Korea from Germany instead of paying rent to Pyongyang; for its part, North Korea has been put off by high Washington rents and wants the United States to release $14 million in previously frozen North Korean assets.

Kim is likely also to demand more food aid, though that issue is not officially on the agenda. The United Nations' World Food Program is expected to make a new appeal next month for assistance for North Korea, giving the United States a chance to increase its food donation, Manning said. Officially, Washington rejects any link between food aid and political issues.

A threat for four decades, North Korea has been a key diplomatic priority for the United States since the early '90s, when Washington became alarmed by signs that the North was trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Tension eased in 1994, when North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a new light-water nuclear reactor, paid for by South Korea and its allies, costing $3 billion to $5 billion. The site for the reactor is now being prepared by workers from the South in a North Korean compound largely sealed off from the population.

Meanwhile, the North has gradually increased its contacts with Washington, which used to insist that Pyongyang deal instead with South Korea.

But few actual results of improved U.S.-Korean ties have materialized: North Korea has not dismantled its nuclear program. And it has secured no trade benefits from the United States.

Manning criticizes the Clinton administration for concentrating on what he called "process" instead of concrete achievements. "We don't know what we want or what we want to pay for it," Manning says.

"Ultimately, the issue is a grand bargain -- they want economic help and security assurances, and we want a reduction of the military threat," he said.

Today's meeting comes as a growing number of non-Communist states in Asia, including South Korea, are grappling with the region's worst economic crisis in decades. Already, friction has developed between the United States and South Korea that could affect future dealings with North Korea.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, President Clinton has been negotiating with Asian and Pacific leaders on an extraordinary bailout package for the region that will reach tens of billions of dollars.

South Korean officials have called on the United States to pay for a small portion of North Korea's new nuclear reactor. Seoul said it should pay 60 percent, Japan 30 percent and the United States 10 percent. So far, the United States has refused to pay for anything more than its previously agreed $30 million a year in fuel oil for North Korea.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.