Wed, Oct 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

For the US, it might be time to sit down with North Korea again

The Bush team turned its back on the Clinton administration's attempts to negotiate with Pyongyang directly, but the nuclear test may force it to think twice

AP , WASHINGTON

In October 2000, all seemed possible in US relations with North Korea. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a groundbreaking visit to Pyongyang for discussions with Kim Jong-il on a possible missile deal. There was even talk of a follow-up visit by president Bill Clinton.

Almost six years later, the memory of Albright and Kim raising glasses to one another seems almost surreal as the two countries head toward what might be a serious showdown.

President George W. Bush has labeled as "unacceptable" North Korea's underground nuclear weapons test. He said the test "constitutes a threat to international peace and security."

In diplomacy, such wording often foreshadows decisive action against the offending party. In the long and usually frosty history of US-North Korean relations, the current tensions may be comparable to any period since the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended with an armistice. Efforts by the North and South Koreans to reach a peace agreement have failed.

The Albright visit clearly was a rare high point but nothing came of her discussions on a possible missile deal and Clinton never made his proposed end-of-term visit to Pyongyang.

Any hopes for reconciliation with Pyongyang under Bush dissipated quickly, highlighted by his inclusion of North Korea in early 2002 in an international "axis of evil," along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The sense of unease in Washington on Monday over the North Korean atomic test, apparently in the northeastern part of the country, evoked memories of the spring of 1994 when Pyongyang systematically curbed UN monitoring activities at its main nuclear site.

"We all thought we were going to war," said Lieutenant General Howell Estes, the senior US Air Force officer in South Korea at the time.

He was quoted by Don Oberdorfer, a veteran Korea watcher, in his book The Two Koreas. A hastily arranged, calm-the-waters visit to Pyongyang by former president Jimmy Carter in June 1994 helped ease tensions.

A breakthrough occurred in October 1994 when US negotiators persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear program, with onsite monitoring by UN inspectors. In exchange, the US, with input from South Korea and Japan, promised major steps to ease North Korea's acute energy shortage.

These commitments were inherited by the Bush administration, which made clear almost from the outset that it believed that the Clinton policy ignored key elements of North Korea's activities, especially the threat posed by the hundreds of thousands of troops on permanent duty along the Demilitarized Zone.

Trust between the two countries, never high to begin with, hit a low point in October 2002 when the State Department charged that North Korea had violated the 1994 agreement by secretly pursuing nuclear weapons through a uranium enrichment program.

In the ensuing months, North Korea defiantly ejected UN nuclear monitors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted a nuclear reactor that US officials said was designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

There was an undercurrent of partisanship over the issue. Democrats blamed administration policies for the increasing tensions in Asia. They insisted on direct US-North Korean talks. The administration countered that direct US-North Korean discussions in 1994 under Clinton ended with an agreement that was brazenly flouted by Pyongyang not long after it was signed.

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