SINGAPORE -- Closing ranks against a common concern, the United States, Japan and South Korea appealed to isolated North Korea yesterday to "seize the opportunity" for better relations with the outside world, including diplomatic recognition and an easing of sanctions.
But the top diplomats for the three allies also sternly warned the Pyongyang regime that it will face severe repercussions, including cuts in aid, trade and travel, if it carries out bellicose threats to launch a new long-range ballistic missile over the Pacific. Military experts say the missile could reach Alaska and Hawaii.
The carrot-and-stick message was delivered here as U.S. officials scrambled to clarify an unusual North Korean radio broadcast Monday. Using language rarely heard from Pyongyang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman appeared to significantly soften the communist regime's standard bitter diatribe against Washington and its democratic allies in Asia.
"We do not want to regard the United States as the sworn enemy, and if the U.S. recognizes our sovereignty and approaches us with good faith, we are ready to develop relations on the principle of equality and mutual benefit," he told the Korean Central News Agency, according to wire reports.
A senior U.S. administration official said that if the translation is accurate, "we would see that as a very positive sign" that could signal a breakthrough for long-frustrated efforts by the United States and other nations to lower tensions on the heavily armed peninsula.
White House envoy William J. Perry visited Pyongyang in May and delivered a letter from President Clinton addressed to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il. Officials said later that the letter, which has not been made public, offered to unravel a tight web of sanctions and extend diplomatic recognition if the North halts the development, export and testing of ballistic missiles and abandons efforts to build nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.
In Singapore yesterday, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright urged Pyongyang, which has yet to formally respond to Perry's visit, to embrace the proposal and join the international community.
"There has never been a better time than this," she said at a joint news conference with South Korea's foreign minister, Hong Soon Young, and Japan's foreign minister, Masahiko Komura.
"Our goal is a Korean peninsula that is stable, increasingly prosperous and moving toward permanent reconciliation," Albright said.
U.S. officials have warned that a missile launch would scuttle the Perry initiative and make it more difficult for the United States to continue a massive humanitarian aid effort designed to battle widespread hunger in the poverty-stricken nation.
South Korea's envoy said Pyongyang "will enjoy many benefits" if it accepts the U.S. proposal. But if North Korea fires the missile, he said, the South Korean government will cut billions of dollars worth of investments, tourist ventures and development aid that have blossomed under a "sunshine policy" designed to engage the North.
Concern over North Korea's intentions was a major topic of discussion here Monday among the 22 nations attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, regional forum, Asia's foremost economic grouping.
Foreign ministers from Asia, the Pacific and the European Union warned in a joint statement that North Korea's ballistic missile program could "heighten tensions and have serious consequences for stability in the Korean peninsula and the region."
North Korea is the only country in Asia that has refused to join ASEAN's security forum and take part in efforts to reduce tensions.