AFTER TALKS at the White House on his visit to North Korea, the former president Jimmy Carter said he considered the crisis surrounding the country's nuclear activities to be over. A official of the Clinton administration later acknowledged that there may be an 'opening' for ending the stand-off.
Mr Carter relayed the results of his visit during a meeting with the National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, and in a telephone conversation with President Bill Clinton, who was at Camp David. He left North Korea on Friday with an offer from President Kim Il Sung for an immediate summit between himself and South Korea.
Mr Carter said in Washington yesterday: 'I personally believe the crisis is over.' As far as he was concerned, there were 'no unanswered questions' about Mr Kim's offer of an early summit. 'The next step is to assure that the agreements that were worked out beween me and (Mr Kim) are carried out,' he said.
There has been confusion over suggestions made by Mr Carter during his trip that, because of the new flexibility, Washington was already moving to suspend its efforts to impose economic sanctions against the country. Asked about whether the administration was indeed ending its sanctions drive, the former president said: 'Well, I'm not the one to speak about that.'
Commenting on the visit, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Galluci gave a first indication that the administration was giving serious credence to the claims of Mr Carter. He suggested that 'there may be an opening' in the stand-off and that the former president, 'may have brought back something from which we can build' a resolution to the crisis.
In South Korea, after weeks of speculation about imminent war, Saturday night was party night in Seoul and around the country. First, their football team made a stunning recovery in the World Cup match against Spain, coming from two goals behind to equalise with two scores in the last six minutes. Then, on Saturday afternoon, television news said President Kim Young Sam had accepted an invitation to meet the North Korean leader.
The summit would be the first meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea since the peninsula was divided in 1945. Kim Il Sung had said he would meet his southern counterpart 'at any time and any place'. After little more than an hour's deliberation, President Kim Young Sam said he would accept the proposal, saying 'the sooner the better'.
The prospect of an inter-Korean summit shifts attention, for the time being, from the confrontation between North Korea and the US over Pyongyang's continuing refusal to open its nuclear facilities to full-scale international inspections, as it is bound to do under its membership of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US, which suspects North Korea already has material for one or two nuclear bombs and is in the process of manufacturing even more, has threatened Pyongyang with sanctions if it continues to block the inspections.
Yesterday South Korea was trying to set up a channel of communication with the North to discuss the proposed summit, for which no time or date has yet been mentioned. But wary that the proposal from Kim Il Sung is just another stratagem to delay a showdown over his nuclear programme, government officials in Seoul said they would continue to demand that the North come clean on the nuclear issue.
Already Kim Il Sung has muddied the waters and gained something of a victory: in the past, any initiative towards an intra-Korean summit was blocked when Seoul made clarification of the nuclear issue a precondition of the talks. Similarly with the US: the Clinton administration had said it would not enter into another round of high-level talks unless full nuclear inspections had been carried out. But following the visit by Mr Carter, during which Kim Il Sung apparently promised to freeze his nuclear programme, the US is now on the verge of doing a deal whereby it will resume high-level talks in exchange for a simple freeze - a step back from the full-scale inspections it had insisted on until now.
But these details will be temporarily submerged in the excitement of a meeting between the two Korean leaders, if the summit goes ahead. Kim Il Sung, who is 82, has repeatedly said that the peninsula should be reunified by 1995, the 50th anniversary of its partition.
The prospects of some real progress towards reunification, combined with the euphoria over South Korea's World Cup progress, make a heady brew, and few now want to listen to the voices of caution in the background.
James Fenton, page 18
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