Albright Meets N. Korean 'Great Leader'

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright held historic talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il today and said Washington was taking a measured approach to rapprochement with the secretive communist state.

“No, it is very measured,” Albright told reporters who noted some quarters believed the United States may be moving too fast. “We are not going to go faster than it makes sense in terms of U.S. interests.”

A smiling Kim, in a display reminiscent of his welcome for rival South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung at their epochal June summit, greeted Albright warmly before they settled into talks which went on for much longer than expected.

“I am really very happy,” said Kim as he met a U.S. cabinet member for the first time ever.

Talking for Hours

A U.S. State Department official said Albright and Kim talked initially for two hours, took a 10-minute break, then met for another session likely to continue a further hour.

Although no details were available of the tone and substance of the discussions, Kim suddenly decided to take over as host of a dinner arranged for Albright by Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and the highest-ranking North Korean ever to go to Washington.

Kim thanked Albright for arranging a meeting with President Clinton for Jo.

“There was no dispute between our countries — everything went smoothly,” Kim said, referring to Jo’s recent Washington trip.

A Recluse No More?

The talks were another step in reclusive North Korea’s efforts to enter the world stage. Within the past year, Kim has also met the presidents of China, Russia and South Korea.

While no accords are expected to be signed during her two-day trip, Albright will recommend for or against a visit by Clinton, who could then seal some deals, a senior U.S. official said.

Albright was met by North Korean vice foreign minister Kim Gye Gwan in a low-key ceremony at Pyongyang airport on a gray cloudy morning, and her motorcade glided along largely deserted streets on the half-hour journey into the capital.

Albright wants to judge how serious Kim Jong Il really is about leading his country out of its long isolation and improving relations with Washington and U.S. allies in East Asia, the official told reporters during the long flight from Washington.

European and Asian leaders gave a boost to reconciliation between the two Koreas on Saturday when, winding up a summit in Seoul on regional cooperation, they lent support to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s policy of reconciliation with the North.

A Tense Peninsula

The United States wants to reduce tension on the Korean peninsula, where U.S. and South Korean troops fought North Korea and Chinese forces in the Korean War, and persuade North Korea to abandon the long-range missile program that has been the driving force behind expensive U.S. missile defense plans.

U.S. officials believe North Korea, after years of food shortages and economic decline, sees cooperation with the outside world as the best way to bring prosperity without giving up power like the communists of eastern Europe.

Albright is particularly interested in learning more about Kim Jong Il’s offer to abandon North Korea’s long-range missile program in exchange for foreign help with missile launches.

The idea, put to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year, is gaining ground after some initial skepticism.

Albright and Kim talked in a large luxurious room, across a large table, in a building in the Paekhawon guesthouse complex where the U.S. visitor is staying.

Albright sat with four aides on one side, including North Korea policy coordinator Wendy Sherman and negotiator Charles Kartman. Kim and three aides faced her.

The 14-member U.S. delegation posed with Kim for a group photo in front of a stormy seascape mural.

Dances With Children

As they walked to the meeting room, Kim asked Albright if she was having a pleasant stay.

“I danced with the children and I’m very satisfied,” Albright replied, referring to a visit to the Rangnang Kindergarten, one of tens of thousands of places where the World Food Program (WFP) distributes food to needy children.

She stood on the kindergarten steps, kicking her heels and waving her arms, following the lead of a North Korean teacher, under a sign reading, “Thanks To The Respected Generalissimo Kim Il Sung,” Kim Jong Il’s father and North Korea’s founder.

Albright’s first engagement in Pyongyang this morning was a visit to the Kim Il Sung memorial palace to pay respects at the mausoleum of Kim Jong Il’s father, who died in 1994.

On the eve of Albright’s arrival, the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Chi Haotian, and a military delegation traveled to North Korea for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the first clash between Chinese and U.S.-led United Nations forces.

The troops — which China says were volunteers, not regular army personnel — aided Pyongyang in the 1950-53 Korean War that resulted in as many as 900,000 Chinese casualties.

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