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N. Korea Hears Peace Proposal From South, U.S.

March 06, 1997|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — More than 43 years after the Korean War ended in an uneasy truce, the United States and its South Korean ally laid out their vision of peace to a high-level North Korean delegation Wednesday, hinting at economic help if the beleaguered Communist regime agrees to four-power peace talks.

After a five-hour meeting that all sides described as "serious and sincere," the North Korean delegation said it needed more time to study the proposal before committing itself to talks that would also include China, North Korea's ally in the 1950-53 war.

But a senior U.S. official described the outcome as the "next best" possible result, behind only an immediate North Korean acceptance.

The meeting came at one of the most critical times for North Korea in the four decades since the end of the war. Economic isolation by most of the world has left North Korea's economy a shambles and its people facing widespread famine.

But those conditions also give South Korea and the United States added incentive to move toward peace talks because the instability in the North could lead to military aggression.

Early today, Seoul announced that the United States and South Korea have canceled this year's "Team Spirit" military exercises to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. North Korea has bitterly denounced the joint wargames as preparation for an invasion.

Washington and Seoul clearly hope to convene a peace conference as soon as possible, certainly within the next months, to help stabilize the situation on the peninsula.

In New York, Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's vice foreign minister and chief of the delegation, told reporters: "We are prepared to listen to whatever proposals . . . promote peace and security on the Korean peninsula, [but] we need further study of this proposal."

The meeting--punctuated by direct exchanges between Kim and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young Shik, deputy foreign minister for political affairs--was a rare face-to-face encounter between the antagonistic Korean governments. The U.S. delegation was headed by Charles Kartman, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

U.S. officials say North Korea's decision to attend the talks was a victory for Washington and Seoul, which have long called for direct negotiation between the Koreas. But nongovernment experts say a more likely explanation is the North's disastrous famine and disintegrating economy.

"The North Korean decision to attend the briefing is one of the more significant political decisions that we can point to," a senior State Department official said earlier this week. He said the North's decision to listen to the U.S.-South Korean presentation was "the greatest hurdle" that the Communist regime must surmount on its way to agreeing to four-party peace talks.

Twice before, North Korea agreed to attend the briefing, then pulled back, asking for indefinite postponements.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that North Korea did not request badly needed food aid during the session, held at a New York hotel, and that the United States and South Korea did not offer new humanitarian shipments. But the official said Washington and Seoul made it clear that the peace conference, if it ever convenes, would cover all aspects of security, including economic cooperation.

Because of its faltering economy, North Korea is far more vulnerable to outside forces than its official ideology of self-reliance would like to admit. "Over the next six months, North Korea faces the prospect of widespread famine and starvation," Robert A. Manning, former State Department advisor on Asia policy, wrote recently. "Moreover, it faces annual food deficits of 1 million tons or more for at least the next several years."

The Clinton administration has agreed to provide some food aid to North Korea, but Manning suggested that it was hardly proper for the U.S. to give large-scale assistance while the North "maintains a 1-million-man army, with two-thirds of it [that force] and 11,000 artillery tubes and Scud missiles within range of Seoul."

A senior U.S. official said the New York meeting was primarily procedural. The American and South Korean delegations laid out their plans for a peace conference, and the North Korean side asked questions and offered suggestions. The U.S. official said the North Koreans appeared to take the presentation "at face value and will report it accordingly to Pyongyang."

There is substantial evidence that North Korea's objective is to establish bilateral relations with the United States, the world's remaining superpower, to make up for the loss of support from the old Soviet Union and China, which sustained the North through the Cold War.

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