North Korea may be one of the world’s few remaining communist countries, a place that has been described as being “hermetically sealed” for the last 50 years, but its leader is no slouch in the new economy.
At a dinner today to mark the end of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s landmark visit to the country, Albright told Kim Jong-il: “Pick up the phone anytime.”
Kim instantly replied: “Please give me your e-mail address.”
The request was unusual coming from the leader of North Korea, a country that has very few computers and no cellular telephone service. North Korea has an Internet service provider though.
The improbability of the night’s meeting was not lost on Albright, who found it hard to believe she was having a cordial visit to a communist land that the United States, until recently, called a rogue state.
Toasting Kim in palatial Magnolia Hall where she was host for a parting dinner, Albright said: “I never expected to play the role of host for such a gathering as this.”
An aide to Kim said in his toast that North Korea looked forward to more steps toward a reconciliation
The officials dined in a six-sided room in a vast hall glowing with brilliant light — all this in a state where many North Koreans, even near the capital, use candles and oil lamps in the face of an electricity shortage and their poverty.
“Chairman Kim was quite clear in explaining his understanding of U.S. concerns,” Albright said, describing him as “a good listener and very decisive.”
Albright said she would report back to President Clinton and he would decide whether the time was right for him to visit North Korea.
After two days of historic high-level talks, U.S. officials said today that North Korea was seeking reconciliation with the United States, and has indicated it won’t launch long-range missiles.
Albright said she took seriously a remark by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — delivered offhand at a gymnastic exhibition Monday night — that it would refrain from such launches.
Kim had raised the missile issue when an image of a Taepo Dong I missile was flashed before the audience. “He quipped that this was the first satellite launch and it would be the last,” she said.
Asked if she interpreted that as a pledge for a permanent moratorium on missile launches, Albright said, “I take what he said as serious as to his desire to move forward to resolve various questions.”
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said after Albright and Kim finished their talks that the North Korean leader is agreeable to “serious restraint” in missiles.
“A missile can’t hit the United States unless it goes into space,” the official said. “So the kind of missiles that we’re really worried about, he’s pledged to never launch again.”
But diplomats offered no further elaboration of Kim’s words to Albright in their six hours of talks, including whether his assurances covered all missiles that could be used against other countries.
Lower-level technical talks on missiles were planned for next week.
Many analysts in and out of government are convinced that North Korea already has the capacity with a long-range missile to strike at the perimeter of the United States.
That concern has been the main impetus for proposals to build a U.S. national missile defense system. North Korea has already agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program and to stop selling missiles to regimes the United States considers hostile.
Kim Eager for More Talks
Before opening the talks today, Kim told Albright, the first U.S. official he had ever met, “I don’t think the three hours of discussions we had yesterday were enough to break the silence of 50 years.”
Albright said they also discussed security issues, terrorism, human rights, missing persons and “the need for concrete steps toward tension reduction on the Korean peninsula.”
“It is important that we work to overcome the enmities of the past and focus on a brighter future for our peoples,” Albright said.
Earlier in the day, Albright ventured out into the countryside for a lunch held by Jo Myong Rok, Kim’s top aide, at a rural guest house. Trees along the route from capital were ablaze with color.
Toasting her host there, Albright said: “The U.S. loves peace and we want to see Cold War divisions end. We want countries to feel secure from the threats, conflict and war.”
In his remarks, Jo said the U.S.-North Korean relationship “that has been frozen so deep over the past several decades is now reaching the historic moment of thawing.”
Jo, whose toast was read by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, said he was convinced that Albright’s visit would lead to “further improved breakthroughs” in the relationship between their countries.
Indeed, Albright was seeking to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Clinton as early as next month. White House spokesman Jake Siewert said the president would not decide whether to make the trip until Albright’s return.
“We have some hope of resolving our outstanding differences with North Korea and looking forward to the day when they will truly close the last chapter in the aftermath of the Korean War,” Clinton said Monday.
Albright urged caution. “We must be pragmatic and recognize that the road to fully normal relations remains uphill,” she said.
Historic Situations From her first step on North Korean soil to her meeting with Kim, Monday was a day of firsts for Albright. No other secretary of state had ventured to North Korea, nor had any other U.S. officials met with the reclusive leader.
Kim made note of the occasion. “This is a new one from a historic point of view,” he said.
Albright paid separate courtesy calls earlier today on President Kim Yong Nam, the ceremonial head of state, and the North Korean foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun.
Before returning home, Albright scheduled a stop in Seoul on Wednesday to tell South Korean and Japanese officials about her meetings with Kim.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.