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U.S.-N. Korea Meeting Marks a Turning Point

Diplomacy: Emissary's visit to Washington is hailed as a key step in Pyongyang's removal from the American list of nations that sponsor terrorism.


WASHINGTON — President Clinton, breaking new ground in relations between the United States and one of its last remaining communist adversaries, met Tuesday with a special emissary from North Korea's supreme leader.

The visit to the White House of Jo Myong Rok, first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, is the highest-level meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials since an armistice brought fighting on the Korean peninsula to a halt nearly half a century ago. It marks a key step on a path that is expected to lead soon to North Korea's removal from the American list of nations that support terrorism, and possibly to normalization of relations between countries that remain, formally, at war.

Jo, dressed in full military uniform, bore a personal note for Clinton from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Clinton in turn outlined American concerns, ranging from North Korea's missile program to its troop deployments along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. At the end, Clinton told Jo, who has conducted much of his U.S. business in civilian garb, that he might make a good politician.

U.S. officials Tuesday touted the symbolic nature of the meeting, calling the atmosphere "very positive, direct and warm." The U.S. diplomats even read Jo's military dress as sending a message from North Korea's military that it, as well as the country's civilian leadership, wants to improve relations with the United States.

"The very fact that Chairman Kim Jong Il would send a special envoy of such high rank to the United States to convey his ideas and his personal message is an important and historic step in a process for improving the relationship and . . . reaching peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," said Wendy Sherman, Clinton's coordinator for relations in the region. "Both [Clinton and Jo] came away with a sense of wanting to work harder, even harder, to . . . improve the relationship."

Jo, who was the dinner guest of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the State Department on Tuesday, was scheduled for further meetings today with U.S. officials here.

The White House meeting Tuesday took place on the 55th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers' Party, a major North Korean holiday. It followed on the heels of an agreement with the U.S. announced Friday, in which North Korea denounced terrorism and the two sides committed themselves to an exchange of data on international terrorism.

The agreement was widely hailed as an early step toward taking North Korea off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. officials have said that it might also be necessary for North Korea to expel a number of Japanese Red Army members who in 1970 hijacked a Japanese airliner to North Korea.

Once North Korea is removed from that list, it would be far more likely to receive loans, investment and aid from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, to which the United States is a major contributor.

North Korea had earlier insisted that it be removed from the U.S. terrorist list before it would open high-level discussions with the United States.

As a further concession, North Korean officials in recent months have said that a continued U.S. troop presence on the peninsula would not hinder improving relations.

But analysts said Tuesday that North Korea probably will seek to exact some concessions from Washington in return, especially since Clinton and Albright appear eager to normalize relations with North Korea before leaving office in January.

"The North Koreans are not going to roll over and play dead," said Joel Wit, an expert on the Koreas at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They're going to bargain and get the best deals they can and take it from there."

That, he said, might include the U.S. provision of nuclear-power technology or other energy aid to North Korea. North Korea also may continue to resist conventional arms reductions, including calls to redeploy troops away from the buffer zone between the North and South.

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