Traveling Behind Enemy Lines

He wore an olive-drab uniform laden with communist medals. But when veteran fighter pilot Jo Myong Rok, now the second-most-powerful man in North Korea, arrived at the White House last week to greet President Clinton, his mission was to talk peace, not war. The two leaders--their nations enemies since the 1950-53 Korean War--chatted in the Oval Office for 45 minutes. They exchanged views on North Korea's missile program and America's peacekeeping role on the Korea Peninsula. Jo hand-delivered a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who pledged to join Clinton to reduce tension along the world's last cold-war frontier. Jo then paid a visit to America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Earlier this year, when Albright met with North Korea's Foreign minister at an ASEAN gathering in Bangkok, U.S. administration officials weren't clear how much authority he had. There was no such uncertainty last week. "Jo's on a mission from God," a U.S. official joked. Albright played up the moment. In a dinner toast to Jo that evening, she said: "What was frozen can thaw and what has been contested ground can, over time, become common ground."

After nearly half a century of enmity, the United States and North Korea are trying to mend their relationship. No deal was forged during Jo's three-day visit--but as diplomatic forays go, it was a promising start. The two countries issued a joint communique that broke no new ground, but was encouraging nonetheless. It stressed the importance of the dialogue between North and South Korea, contained a mutual declaration of "no hostile intent" between Washington and Pyongyang and affirmed North Korea's moratorium on missile testing. Most important, Albright announced that she would visit Pyongyang, perhaps later this month, to "make preparations for a possible visit to North Korea by President Clinton."

It's too early to declare peace in Korea. Some 690,000 South Korean soldiers and 37,000 uniformed Americans still guard the 38th parallel against nearly a million North Korean adversaries. Yet Jo's visit, the culmination of two years of painstaking diplomacy, has moved the peninsula from a state of near-constant crisis to the brink of a rapprochement. The United States aims to encourage the process--while keeping the pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to make concessions.

Recent U.S. press reports have suggested that Clinton might be close to removing North Korea from its list of "states that support terrorism"-- a designation that disqualifies Pyongyang from receiving World Bank and IMF funding. But during talks last week, Jo was told that North Korea probably would not be removed from the terrorist list--at least before Albright's visit. "I would note that the secretary of State, and for that matter the president, have been to Syria, which remains on the U.S. terrorism list," said Wendy Sherman, the administration's top North Korea diplomat. However, U.S. officials acknowledged that progress had been made on outlining those moves Kim Jong Il must make to get off the terrorist list--among them, expelling four Japanese Red Army terrorists he harbors and halting missile sales to "rogue" states like Syria and Iran. For his part, Jo told U.S. officials that Kim Jong Il would proceed toward normalization of relations if the United States guarantees his country's territorial integrity. "They are looking for assurances about their sovereignty and right to exist," said Sherman. "We will study [that issue] further."

Most of the discussions in Washington focused on North Korea's ballistic missile program. According to Sherman, U.S. officials are still mulling a Kim proposal that was recently relayed to the United States by Russian President Vladimir Putin: that North Korea would end its missile program if other countries agree to put the North's satellites into orbit. "We believe there is validity to this idea," said Sherman.

Barely six years ago the United States was close to attacking suspected nuclear weapons labs in North Korea. It took a last-ditch peace mission by former president Jimmy Carter to produce a compromise. Known as the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang pledged to mothball its A-bomb program in exchange for two light-water nuclear power plants now under construction in the North. The crisis flared anew in August 1998, when Pyongyang test-fired its newest ballistic missile, the multistage Taepodong. Declared a "satellite launch," the missile soared over northern Japan and crashed into the Pacific.

The provocation sparked panic in Japan and enraged hawks in Washington. To appease Congress, Clinton deputized former Defense secretary William Perry to review his North Korea policy, a move widely anticipated to harden Washington's stance. Instead, Perry adopted a softer view of North Korea's behavior. He interpreted Pyong-yang's missiles program as largely a bargaining chip for a desperate regime fast running out of options. Rather than push containment, he endorsed diplomatic efforts aimed at coaxing Pyongyang toward moderation. Last year he became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit North Korea since the war. At the core of his thinking, a senior State Department official told NEWSWEEK, "was a recognized need for South-North dialogue." And Perry found a huge ally in South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. His "sunshine policy"--focused on providing financial aid to the north-- has helped pull Kim Jong Il out of his communist cocoon.

While relishing the success of the Perry strategy and the prospect of a Clinton visit to Pyongyang, U.S. officials caution that good feelings must be reinforced with concrete actions by the North. "Our countries are moving in a positive direction," said Albright, "but as both sides recognize, we still have far to go." Fundamental issues, like lack of transparency on food aid, Pyonyang's refusal to pull its Army back from the border or to release Korean War POWs "are not even on the table," says Gordon Blake, a North Korea watcher at the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington. "[Jo's] visit will help keep tensions in check, but I don't see it as a breakthrough."

That said, analysts are picking up intriguing signals. Since the North-South summit, for example, Kim Jong Il has hinted that his government might countenance U.S. troops in Korea even after reunification--a 180 degree shift from Pyongyang's longstanding demand that the "imperialists" leave ahead of peace talks. Last week, in a commentary in the communist mouthpiece Rodong Daily, the North cited a 1980 blueprint by Kim's father, the late Kim Il Sung, for Korean reunification based on the principle of one country, two systems. Yet the report omitted the elder Kim's origi-nal precondition--that America "swiftly withdraw its troops from South Korea."

What's more, by hosting the inter-Korean summit, Pyong-yang tacitly endorsed the South Korean regime's legitimacy. Observers also gleaned a subtle shift during last week's celebrations in Pyongyang marking the 55th birthday of the ruling Korean Workers Party. As usual, Kim Jong Il was the focus of orchestrated adulation. Huge crowds paid him tribute during a colossal open-air rally. This year, however, planners omitted the traditional military parade replete with goose-stepping troops, columns of tanks and convoys of missiles.

As Clinton recognizes, symbolism matters. In his final weeks in office, the U.S. president's strategy for drawing out Kim--highlighted by Jo's White House visit and encouraged by Kim Dae Jung--is showing real promise. Whether Clinton makes it to Pyongyang or not, America's engagement policy will likely survive his presidency--and perhaps become the big foreign-policy achievement he seeks.