Ground-breaking visit to North Korea

US envoy pays tribute to Kim Il Sung
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The Independent Online

Breaking down one of the last barriers of the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opened a historic visit to North Korea on Monday by paying her respects to the late Kim Il Sung, the Soviet-trained ruler who formed the communist nation 55 years ago.

Breaking down one of the last barriers of the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opened a historic visit to North Korea on Monday by paying her respects to the late Kim Il Sung, the Soviet-trained ruler who formed the communist nation 55 years ago.

Albright hopes to use the two-day visit to advance her goal of a tension-free Northeast Asia for the first time in decades and to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Bill Clinton, possibly as early as next month.

No other American secretary of state has visited North Korea and none of Albright's predecessors had even considered the idea because of the grim state of the relationship.

Albright planned to meet later in the day with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Arriving in Pyongyang shortly after dawn, Albright was greeted by North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan. An 8-year-old boy wearing a red kerchief around his neck presented her with a bouquet of flowers.

Her motorcade, which included vehicles driven up from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, drove down deserted boulevards to the Kim Il Sung Palace, where the remains of the longtime North Korean leader are on display. The sprawling edifice was once used as a meeting palace for foreign dignitaries, but was converted to a mausoleum after Kim's death.

Down the road, a large sign attached to the front of one of the buildings read, "The Great Leader Kim Il Sung is always with us."

At a kindergarten in the Rang Nang District, Albright watched dozens of children perform traditional dances to accordian music.

The school also serves as a distribution point for the U.N. World Food Program.

"Your work is vital because these children and their brothers and sisters around the country should be able to grow up without fear of emergency shortages and famine," Albright told staff members. "And international donors should be assured that the supplies they send are used for the purposes intended."

She noted that over the years the United States has contributed nearly 1.5 million tons of food to the program, which serves about 8 million North Koreans.

Albright left Washington shortly after midnight Sunday on the 17-hour journey to the North Korean capital, a city U.S. forces had reduced to rubble during the Korean War. It is now a metropolis with tall buildings and broad boulevards, although with scarcely any traffic.

If her talks with Kim go well, Clinton will follow her to Pyongyang as part of an Asia trip next month, administration officials said.

"We still believe there are very significant steps that have to be taken to meet the concerns the United States has," said a senior State Department official aboard Albright's plane, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We have reason to believe that because of discussions that we have had that North Korea may be prepared to take some very serious steps."

Albright's main concern is North Korea's missile development program and its export of missiles to Iran and Syria. She will confer with Kim on those issues but officials said no agreements are expected.

The United States is considering the creation of a national missile defense, partly out of concern that North Korea may some day direct ICBM's at American cities.

North Korea has for years ignored American efforts to stop exporting missiles, and the possibility that the Pyongyang regime may now be listening to these concerns has generated excitement among arms control advocates.

In Clinton's quest for a foreign policy legacy worthy of the history books, his initiative with North Korea seems more promising than any other, a turn of events few would have predicted six years ago when the two counties seemed close to war.

Clinton has shown patience and diligence in seeking an accommodation with North Korea. His initiative has prospered, at least for the time being, because of a surprise willingness of Kim to reciprocate.

Kim, perhaps motivated by economic catastrophe, has scrapped North Korea's policy of reclusiveness and has been reaching out not only to the United States but to other countries, most notably South Korea.

In the process, Kim has shed the stereotypical view of him. Don Oberdorfer, a Korea expert at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, said Kim was depicted in intelligence reports as an awful man who was "introverted and strange."

But he showed himself to be "very confident and very poised" when in June he had his historic summit encounter with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

Conservative groups are concerned that Clinton may be taken in by the newly amiable North Korean leader.

The Center for Security Policy cites a classified Pentagon report leaked last month asserting that there is no evidence that North Korea is changing fundamentally and that there has been no reduction in North Korea's military.

After two days of discussion in Pyongyang, Albright will fly across the Demilitarized Zone to Seoul to report on her talks to senior officials from Japan and South Korea, both of which continue to be nervous about North Korea's military. As a deterrent, the United States maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea.

Just two weeks ago, Kim dispatched to Washington his right hand man, Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok. The visit produced a communique in which the two sides pledged "to take steps to fundamentally improve their bilateral relations in the interests of enhancing peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region."

The two countries do not have diplomatic relations, but have discussed the possibility of opening liaison offices in each other's capital.

*BEIJING: China's defence minister has promised to maintain strong military ties with North Korea as part of the countries' revitalized relations, Chinese state media reported Monday.

Gen. Chi Haotian's visit to North Korea, China's highest-level mission to its communist neighbor in years, was overshadowed by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's arrival in Pyongyang on Monday. But Chi's presence highlights China's close ties with North Korea even as it breaks a self-imposed political isolation.

Chi's five-day visit culminates with ceremonies Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of China's entry to the Korean War on North Korea's side. The 1950-53 conflict is known in China as the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. Chi, now a member of the communist ruling inner circle, is a Korean War veteran.

Shortly after arriving Sunday, Chi told North Korea's defense minister, Vice Marshal Kim Il Chol, that ties between the two militaries were "a vital part" of overall relations, China's Xinhua News Agency reported. Chi added that the two armies "have been maintaining close contacts at all levels."

Underscoring China's key role in the region's changing politics, Chi expressed Beijing's support for a peaceful Korean peninsula and warming relations between North Korea and South Korea, Xinhua said.

China is unique among the major powers, enjoying robust ties with capitalist South Korea as well as its long-standing relations with the North. Although relations frayed in the 1990s, China and North Korea have sought to revive them, most dramatically during North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's secretive visit to Beijing in May.

The Korean War anniversary sparked speculation in Beijing diplomatic circles last week that Chinese President Jiang Zemin would soon go to Pyongyang to keep the momentum going.

Chi noted to North Korea's defense minister that the Jiang-Kim meeting in Beijing pushed relations into "a new stage of development," Xinhua said.

Xinhua did not report if Chi made any mention of North Korea's recent diplomatic forays - inviting Albright and opening relations with Britain and Germany. North Korea's state media also did not mention the substance of Chi and Kim's meeting, although it described the talks as "friendly."

China is keen to see stability on its borders so that it can pursue economic modernization and would like Pyongyang to reform its torpid economy. North Korea, for its part, has become dependent on donations of Chinese food and oil and credits for trade but needs foreign investment.