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Powell Pursues Renewal of N. Korea Talks

Asia: The secretary calls on the South and Russia to help break deadlock in diplomatic overtures.

July 28, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — In a bit of diplomatic damage control, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held talks here Friday with President Kim Dae Jung to signal determined American support for South Korea's efforts at reconciliation with the North and to appeal for a resumption of the U.S.-North Korean dialogue.

Powell called for a "comprehensive dialogue without preconditions" between Washington and the Communist government in Pyongyang.

"We can meet at a time and a place of North Korea's choice," he said at a news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo.

To break the impasse in U.S. and South Korean diplomatic overtures to Pyongyang, Powell also called on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to put pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during the latter's impending visit to Moscow. In an unexpected turn, Kim embarked this week on a 21-car armored train bound for the Russian capital. The trip, his first to Russia and one of his few outside North Korea, will take at least 10 days--getting him into Moscow about Aug. 4.

"It would be very useful if President Putin and the other Russian leaders would point out to Chairman Kim the importance of resuming discussions with the United States, that his economy is in a very terrible state and he has a variety of problems," Powell said.

The secretary also called on Moscow to warn the North Korean leader about the pitfalls inherent in several of the North's recent actions, particularly development and export of weapons of mass destruction.

"I hope they would point out that all of this is not in the interest of the North Korean people," Powell added.

Pressed on why Pyongyang has balked at responding to U.S. overtures, Powell said the regime is, as usual, acting in a "very deliberate way."

"They are studying very carefully and making their own judgment about what they want to put on the table. And so we will be patient and wait for their response," he said.

Kim Jong Il was scheduled to visit Seoul for the first time last month but has indefinitely deferred the sequel to his South Korean counterpart's historic trip to North Korea last year. Powell told reporters Friday that the United States, which has 37,000 troops deployed along the tense border between the two Koreas, hopes "very much" that Kim will make the trip this year.

Powell's one-day visit here as part of his first Asian tour as secretary of State was designed largely to repair damage caused during Kim Dae Jung's visit to Washington on March 7. The Bush administration ruffled South Korean feathers and embarrassed the South's leadership by appearing to back away from support of Kim's "sunshine policy," aimed at reconciliation between North and South.

The administration's lengthy policy review also added a new issue--the status of conventional forces deployed along the North-South border--to a dialogue that was launched by the Clinton administration. That issue is highly sensitive to the North Korean leadership, and many U.S. analysts believe that widening the agenda has complicated and delayed resumption of talks with a new administration.

Last year, the Clinton administration came close to concluding an agreement on ending production, deployment and export of North Korean missiles. And in October, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first senior U.S. official to visit Pyongyang. But in the end, the Clinton foreign policy team was unable to devote the time or negotiate the critical verification steps required to seal a deal.

Under the Bush administration, the early diplomatic flap and the addition of a new issue on the table have left at a standstill one of the most important initiatives since the Korean War half a century ago. Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for launching his reconciliation effort.

If talks do not resume in the near future, the impasse could have a significant effect on already tense South Korean politics. Kim's five-year term runs out next year, and he is constitutionally unable to run again. The fate of his Millennium Democratic Party, the first opposition party to hold power since South Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945, hangs in the balance.

Kim's presidency is already troubled by a slow economy. Should his pivotal foreign policy fail to produce tangible results, the party will face a tough time at the polls in December 2002. And should it lose, analysts warn, the reconciliation effort could be dealt further setbacks or even dropped.

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