Albright, North Korea hold historic talks

BANGKOK, Thailand - Fifty years after the Korean War, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Friday used the United States' first high-level talks with North Korea to detail concerns over the communist state's missile program.

The talks were a ''substantively modest but symbolically historic step away from the sterility and hostility of the past,'' she said. The meeting ran nearly an hour over the allotted 20 minutes.

Albright said she was ''direct'' in letting North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun know of U.S. concerns over missile threats and nuclear-related activity on the Korean peninsula.

Paek provided no details about a reported offer North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made recently to Russia's president to transform the North's missile program into peaceful efforts to launch satellites into space, she said.

North Korea's ominous missile program was a major topic at an Asian security forum this week.

Although Kim Jong Il reaffirmed a moratorium on long-range missile launches last month, a shot over Japan in 1998 wakened the world to North Korea's growing prowess with such weapons.

The launch fueled the United States' drive to erect a national missile defense, which most countries - including its allies - fear will disrupt existing arms treaties.

U.S. officials have suggested letting North Korea launch satellites from neutral nations but not permitting technology that might improve their missiles.

New Zealand's foreign minister said Paek denied that North Korea had nuclear weapons but acknowledged having missile systems.

''His response was also that this must be expected from North Korea given the fact that other countries also have missiles trained on his country,'' Foreign Minister Phil Goff said.

New Zealand was among countries engaged in a flurry of talks with Paek, whose country has enjoyed a coming-out into the wider world since the historic summit in June between the two Koreas.

On Friday, Goff announced that New Zealand would join Australia, Italy and the Philippines in normalizing ties with the communist state. Canada announced Thursday that it would establish diplomatic ties.

Athletes from the two Koreas may even march together at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sydney. The International Olympic Committee on Friday approved the North's proposal to let the Koreans march together under the Olympic flag in what would be a powerful symbol of Koreans' desire to reunify.

Albright welcomed the thaw in relations, saying it served the aspirations of both Koreas, which have yet to formalize a peace since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

''I made it very clear that it was very important to get past the 50 years of hostility and look toward the future,'' Albright said.

The Korean peninsula has long been one of the world's flashpoints. Some 37,000 U.S. troops remain posted in South Korea, which is divided from the North by the world's most heavily militarized border.

Albright said she was ''somewhat more hopeful than before for the long-term stability on the Korean peninsula and throughout the region.''

North Korea issued a statement saying the two sides conducted ''serious deliberations on the ways to normalize and expand'' relations and agreed that recent developments had led to a ''positive atmosphere.''

At the meeting's start, Albright reached across a table to shake hands with Paek three times for the cameras, and later describing Paek as ''very nice.''

''He said he had passed me last year at the General Assembly and we had not spoken to each other,'' the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said. ''He did, however, tell me I looked younger this year.''

Albright wore a canary yellow dress similar to the ''sunshine dress'' she wore on her last trip to Asia to pay tribute to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's so-called ''sunshine policy'' of building peace with the North.

Tied up in Washington with the Mideast peace summit, she nearly lost the chance to meet Paek, having missed North Korea's induction Thursday into the 23-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum.

Asked about news reports that North Korea would dispatch a high-level delegation to Washington to discuss improving ties, Paek said the Americans have been seeking such an encounter but ''the atmosphere is not ripe yet.''

North Korea first wants the United States to end economic sanctions and remove it from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.


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