Albright to hold first high-level US contact with North Korea

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The Independent Online

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is to meet her North Korean counterpart this week in the first high-level diplomatic contact between America and the reclusive Stalinist state.

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is to meet her North Korean counterpart this week in the first high-level diplomatic contact between America and the reclusive Stalinist state.

The announcement came from Pyongyang and was subsequently confirmed yesterday by the US National Security Council spokesman, P J Crowley, who said the meeting would was expected to take place in Bangkok before the regional forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The encounter, described in the formal language of diplomacy as intended to discuss "issues related to bilateral relations", marks the latest stage in the emergence of the hardline Communist state from its self-imposed isolation. But it also reflects apprehension in Washington that the situation on the Korean peninsula may be changing faster than it anticipated and that the US risks being outmanoeuvred by a newly fleet-footed Moscow in reaping the advantages.

At the centre of Ms Albright's talks with Paek Nam-sun will be North Korea's apparent pledge to halt its nuclear missile programme in return for co-operation on space research with other countries, among them Russia. The undertaking, which was announced by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, after a meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang last week, was greeted in Washington with a combination of scepticism and curiosity, but also concern.

North Korea's missile programme is cited by the Pentagon and Republicans in the US is a key justification for deploying the National Missile Defence (NMD) as soon as possible. President Clinton is committed to making a decision on deployment this autumn in the face of fierce objections from China and Russia.

Were North Korea to renounce its missile programme, this would remove one of the best publicised arguments for the NMD and give renewed force to claims that the only reason the US wants to proceed with the system is to gain a global advantage. The Russian President's confident performance at the G8 weekend summit in Japan, in which he presented himself as chief advocate for Pyongyang's good intentions and a potential mediator between it and the rest of the world, was calculated to make waves in Washington.

Of the North Korean leader, Mr Putin said: "I have the impression he knows how to hear and to listen. It is possible to deal with him ... I hope the results of my visit will be used by all countries."

Italy and Australia have already established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, although via ambassadors based in Peking, and it is clear that the other G8 nations, including Britain, are giving thought to their next step.

Mr Putin was said to have urged Tony Blair to respond to the positive signs from Pyongyang - to which Mr Blair replied that it would be a "sensible thing to do, provided we are not naive about it, provided we recognise the nature of the regime". Senior officials travelling with Mr Blair made clear that diplomatic recognition is not likely soon. But the regular talks which have been taking place between British and North Korean diplomats are set to be upgraded.

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