North Korea at the ARF

Coming out: Foreign minister at Bangkok meeting takes steps toward acting like normal nation.

July 29, 2000

SECRETARY of State Madeleine K. Albright fled Camp David in time to meet North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun yesterday in Bangkok, Thailand. It is the highest level meeting between the United States and the half-nation since the war they fought a half-century ago.

They are at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which runs a larger meeting for nonmembers called the Asian Regional Forum (ARF). North Korea has never been to the ARF before.

Already in Bangkok, Mr. Paek met Canada's Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy. Canada decided to recognize North Korea diplomatically. New Zealand did, too.

He met Japan's Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. They agreed to resume efforts, suspended in 1992, to improve relations. That won't be a snap. North Korea wants Japan to pay reparations for the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Japan wants satisfaction on North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr. Paek invited a Thai trade delegation to visit Pyongyang next month. North Koreans are starving, but North Korea has not paid for $97 million worth of rice imported from Thailand since 1993.

The image of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's Communist dictator, has changed from space alien to latest fad. Five of 10 best sellers in South Korean bookstores are about him. Young people there adopt his stand-up hair style.

Mr. Kim plans to return Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit, going to Moscow by train from Vladivostok. His fear of flying is inherited from his father, Kim Il Sung.

Starting yesterday, Washington needs to probe and assess Mr. Kim's offer, relayed through Mr. Putin, to end rocket development in return for help in launching satellites.

No country should help North Korea develop a capability to hit Honolulu with a missile. But North Korea would deserve aid to launch communications satellites on other nations' rockets instead.

If North Korea would make its suspension of rocket testing and nuclear bomb development permanent -- and verified -- Washington would have less rationale for a national missile defense shield. It's too early to say that is the case, but irresponsible not to find out.

North Korea is not normal yet. It does give the appearance of trying to go there.

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