TOKYO -- When a military jet lifts off tomorrow from Yokota Air Base here, it will signal the final phase in a laborious effort by the United States to come to terms with a mysterious North Korean regime that remains isolated, hungry, armed and potentially dangerous.
Aboard that plane will be former Defense Secretary William Perry, carrying a personal letter from President Clinton to North Korea's top leadership informing them Washington is ready to establish diplomatic ties with the reclusive Communist government if it can be assured that Pyongyang won't produce nuclear weapons or export missiles.
Preparing for this climactic visit, Perry and his aides arrived in Tokyo yesterday to consult with Japanese and South Korean officials before his critical sessions with North Korean leaders.
Perry hopes to meet with Korean leader Kim Jong Il to assess North Korea's willingness to foster closer ties with the outside world after four decades of isolation. But he has received no assurances he will meet the reclusive leader.
Perry emphasized that his mission is to create a unified response among Japan, South Korea and the United States, three nations affected differently by the North's erratic, and sometimes threatening, behavior.
"My delegation's discussions with our allies will focus on coordinating our respective approaches to North Korea as we seek ways to achieve a lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," Perry said after his arrival here.
While South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has emphasized a "sunshine policy" of reconciliation with the North, the Japanese have taken a harder line ever since a North Korean missile overshot the island last summer. In March, Japanese patrol boats fired warning shots at two North Korean ships disguised as fishing trawlers after they crossed into Japanese waters.
Perry has been working for months behind the scenes to complete a "comprehensive review" of U.S. policy toward North Korea. The plan would be designed to win support not only of America's Asian allies, but also of congressional Republicans who say the administration's "engagement campaign" has failed to deter North Korea's threatening behavior.
Perry is believed ready to recommend that the United States gradually lift its 46-year economic embargo against the North in exchange for significant concessions, including a guarantee that North Korea will end its program to launch the kind of long-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan last fall. Washington also wants North Korea to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would prevent the impoverished North from cashing in on one of its few tradable assets -- its rocketry.
Not clear, however, is what would happen should the North Koreans refuse to accede to Washington's inducements.
North Korea receives more than $200 million in U.S. aid each year, primarily fuel oil, under a 1994 agreement intended to persuade Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear development programs. But House Republicans contend the United States should get more for its money, and International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman, a Republican from New York, has proposed curbing aid. "U.S. policy towards North Korea is in need of an overhaul," Gilman said.
Perry's visit coincides with that of a 14-member inspection team assessing a fortified underground complex at Kumchang-ri that U.S. officials contended could be turned into a factory to produce weapons-grade plutonium. North Korean officials permitted investigators to view the site, but only after dropping demands for a $300 million fee for inspecting the facility.