US paves way for Clinton's North Korea swansong

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The Independent Online

The cold war thaw on the Korean peninsula gathers pace today, as the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, flies to Pyongyang to become the most senior American official to visit Stalinist North Korea.

The cold war thaw on the Korean peninsula gathers pace today, as the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, flies to Pyongyang to become the most senior American official to visit Stalinist North Korea.

Ms Albright will meet Kim Jong Il, hereditary "Dear Leader" of a government regarded until a few months ago as one of the world's most repressive, unpredictable and dangerous regimes. But the main purpose of her trip is to lay the ground for an even more remarkable breakthrough: the proposed visit, as early as next month, of President Bill Clinton.

Nothing has been finalised but the fact that Ms Albright's visit is happening at all is evidence of the dizzying changes that have taken place in Korea over the past four months, in which cautious hopes have been exceeded at every turn.

State department officials have been vague about what they expect from Ms Albright's meetings, but it is clear that the North Koreans will have to offer concessions in return for the prestige of what may be Mr Clinton's last major presidential visit. For the Americans, the greatest concern is the North Koreans' ballistic missile programme which became an urgent priority two years ago, when Pyongyang test-fired a long-range rocket over Japan and into the western Pacific.

Pyongyang is believed to have been selling missile systems to unpredictable states such as Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and even Libya. Until 1994, the North Koreans were suspected of developing nuclear weapons under the guise of a nuclear power programme. That has been suspended in return for an agreement by foreign donors to supply fuel oil and safe reactor technology, but Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to restart it.

The issue on which the US is being pressed to give ground is North Korea's presence on a US list of terrorist states, to which it was added after a bomb attack on a South Korean airliner in 1987. At a meeting in Washington this month, Ms Albright and North Korea's senior military commander, Jo Myong Rok, issued a statement renouncing terrorism.

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