Powell Meets With N. Korea Minister
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BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (AP) _ The delegates’ lounge at a conference site seemed an improbable setting for a groundbreaking meeting, but it was there Secretary of State Colin Powell had a 15-minute encounter with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun.
The informal meeting Wednesday was the first high-level contact between the two countries since October 2000.
The two leaders were in Brunei for a conference of Pacific Rim countries and Powell sent word to the North Koreans that he was available in the lounge for a chat.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell reaffirmed the U.S. interest in talks on curbing North Korea’s development and export of long-range missiles, and the U.S. commitment to a 1994 nuclear agreement with Pyongyang.
The early morning meeting took place just over six months after President Bush had designated North Korea as a member of the ``axis of evil.″
With that characterization in mind, the North Korean news agency issued a statement coinciding with the meeting that called the United States ``the kingpin of evil.″
It demanded the immediate withdrawal of the 37,000 U.S. troops from South Korea and asserted that the United States was eager to undertake ``pre-emptive strikes″ against North Korea. The commentary made no reference to the Powell-Paek meeting.
Powell is on a six-nation tour of Southeast Asia. Brunei, the fourth stop, is hosting meetings of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and larger gatherings involving delegates from more than 20 Pacific rim countries. Brunei is a Delaware-sized sultanate on the northwest coast of Borneo.
The United States and North Korea are looking to revive high-level talks for the first time since late in the Clinton administration when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Bush proposed in June 2001 that discussions resume but the North showed no interest until this past spring, its enthusiasm possibly diminished by Bush’s State of the Union designation of the North as a member of an ``axis of evil,″ along with Iran and Iraq.
The two sides seemed headed for renewed talks three weeks ago in Pyongyang but a shooting incident at sea involving vessels of North and South Korea created what the State Department called an ``unfavorable atmosphere″ for the talks and they were postponed.
Just last Friday, Pyongyang showed an interest in establishing contact, perhaps with the Brunei conference in mind.
Long-stalled relations between North and South Korea also seem to be moving ahead.
On Tuesday, South Korea accepted a North Korean proposal for talks following an expression of regret from the North for the incident at sea a month earlier. The South Korean Unification Ministry suggested talks for early August.
North Korea has one of the world’s most stricken economies but the country has long range missiles capable of reaching the United States. To Washington’s alarm, some missile sales have gone to Iran and Syria.
Beyond that, the North has some 700,000 troops stationed near the South Korean border. Some are equipped with chemical and biological weapons.
The Bush administration hopes to start a process that eventually will make North Korea a less menacing presence in Northeast Asia. In return, Washington is prepared to provide still unspecified economic benefits to the North.
Under the 1994 agreement, the North agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for deliveries of heavy fuel from the United States and two light-water reactors to be financed mostly by South Korea and Japan. They would replace Pyongyang’s plutonium-producing reactors.
The North also has pledged under the 1994 agreement to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to verify how much plutonium the North has stored away. Under the agreement, concerns about the North’s nuclear weapons program must be cleared up before the light water reactors can become operational, probably in 2005.