YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

U.S. Welcomes N. Korea's Overtures

Diplomacy: Powell says regime's apology to Seoul for a sea clash and its willingness to receive an envoy are a boon to dialogue efforts.


SIGONELLA, ITALY — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Friday that the Bush administration's effort to open a dialogue with North Korea may be back on track as a result of Pyongyang's sudden apology for a naval clash with South Korea last month, followed by a message to Washington on Thursday night that it was ready to receive a U.S. envoy for talks.

In the wake of those moves, Powell indicated that he might meet with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun next week at an ASEAN conference in Brunei, which would be the communist nation's first high-level contact with the Bush administration.

"In the last couple of days, they've made what I consider some very positive statements that we have welcomed, acknowledging responsibility for the naval incident that took place a few weeks back, also once again indicating receptivity to a dialogue with the United States. We welcome that. We'll be following on it," Powell told reporters traveling with him to Asia.

The two steps by North Korea took Washington by surprise, because as recently as Wednesday Pyongyang was still blaming the United States and South Korea for "gross provocations" that led to a confrontation in which North Korean naval vessels clashed with South Korean patrol boats, a senior U.S. official said. At least four South Koreans were killed, and one of the South's boats sank.

The breakthrough follows a year of efforts by the Bush administration to reengage the North in talks, which have been deadlocked since the Clinton administration left office without formalizing an agreement that would have ended the production and export of North Korea's ballistic missiles. At an ASEAN summit last year, Powell had relayed a message that Washington wanted to reopen talks.

The isolationist regime of leader Kim Jong Il did not respond for months. In May, it finally said it would receive a U.S. envoy in Pyongyang, the North's capital, but then in June it did not respond to a U.S. proposal to send someone in early July. The U.S. initiative, however, was frozen by the June 29 naval clash.

"Our policy is that we are open to a dialogue. In fact, we stated that last summer: any time, any place. We were prepared to enter in that dialogue by now except for the naval incident, which sort of suggested it was not an appropriate time to send a team to Pyongyang," Powell told reporters en route to a refueling stop at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy.

"So we have had another turn of the wheel, and we'll follow it up."

Pressed on whether he would meet his North Korean counterpart, he said, "I'm not ruling anything in or out."

Just a day earlier, U.S. officials had downplayed any possibility of a meeting at the annual summit of the Assn. of South East Asian Nations, because North Korea was still taking a belligerent stance.

Indeed, Kim's regime had warned Wednesday of the danger of additional confrontations if the U.S. and South Korea prevented North Korean ships from crossing a disputed maritime border near a fishing area in the Yellow Sea.

But on Thursday, the letter from North Korean Cabinet official Kim Ryong Song delivered to South Korea expressed regret for the military clash, which it called "accidental." It also proposed that both nations make efforts to avoid future clashes and reopen talks on reunification and other issues.

If and when the U.S.-North Korean dialogue resumes, the United States wants to focus largely on ending Pyongyang's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, and on redeploying North Korean conventional forces stationed along the demilitarized zone with South Korea.

The Bush administration's decision to add the issue of conventional forces is one of the reasons the talks launched during the Clinton presidency have taken so long to resume.

In 1994, the Clinton administration mediated an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear program in Yongbyon in exchange for U.S., Japanese and South Korean help with two light-water nuclear reactors for energy.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in October 2000 became the first ranking U.S. official to visit North Korea in nearly half a century, since the 1950-53 Korean War. She mediated terms for a missile agreement, which President Clinton had hoped to sign as one of his last foreign policy accomplishments in office. But the effort stalled over terms for monitoring and verification.

Powell's stop in Brunei is one leg of a grueling eight-nation swing through Asia beginning with stops in India and Pakistan this weekend to prod the two nuclear powers to launch new peace efforts in the disputed Kashmir region.

Although the two South Asian nations pulled back from the nuclear brink last month, the Bush administration is concerned that another terrorist attack by Muslim militants against Indian targets could quickly renew hostilities. The two countries have deployed a million troops along their border after tensions escalated, beginning with a Dec. 13 terrorist attack on India's Parliament in New Delhi.

Fourteen people died in the attack, including the five gunmen, and India accused Pakistan's military intelligence agency of complicity. Pakistan denied the charge.

Powell said he would speak about the urgency of a dialogue between India and Pakistan so they can avoid getting stuck in an open-ended state of prewar tensions. But he acknowledged that elections in Pakistan and Kashmir this fall could prevent any quick response.

Powell will also travel to six southeast Asian nations--Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines--that have taken on new importance since Sept. 11. The United States says Al Qaeda members or supporters have operated in five of the six countries, and Powell will seek to beef up counter-terrorism cooperation.

Los Angeles Times Articles