North Korea has opened the door to scholarly and cultural exchanges with the United States, Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) said today after a four-day visit to Pyongyang.
Solarz, the first U.S. congressman ever to visit the North Korean capital, said the invitation came from President Kim Il Sung. He said there is no U.S. policy barring North Korean cultural groups from visiting the United States and he would alert interested groups in the United States to Kim's remarks.
Observers recalled how "Ping-Pong diplomacy" led to the eventual normalization of relations between China and the United States, but I am not the Sol Hurok of Northeast Asia," Solarz said, and he doesn't plan to organize exchanges on his own. The late Sol Hurok was a famous impresario.
The congressman also said that the North Koreans have dropped troublesome preconditions for the reunion of families and exchange of mail with South Korea.
Solarz, saying his trip was "neither encouraged nor discouraged" by the State Department, said his talk with President Kim at a guest house in the Hamhung area provided a rare chance for the North Korean leader to hear the U.S. position on various issues "without being filtered through the North Korean press . . . or North Korean diplomats."
He said Kim was "avuncular and articulate," "intellectually impressive," and "appeared to be in very good health."
"I believe our conversations contributed to a good beginning," Solarz said during a brief stopover here on his way to Tokyo. "Whether any of these promising openings lead to further progress remains to be seen." He said North Korean leaders, despite their statements, continued to be critical of the current martial law government in Seoul and said they did not expect much progress in North-South talks scheduled to resume Aug. 20.
Solarz added that the solution of the reunion and exchange questions would be up to the two Koreas, and that he did not plan to act as a middleman in further negotiations between the sides.
Pyongyang in the past raised the possibility of allowing thousands of North Koreans the opportunity to visit relatives in the South but expressed the fear they would be subject to arrest in the South because it it is a crime in South Korea to be a communist.
Solarz said that during his four-hour conversation Friday with Kim, he did not detect any change in this position. Kim Young Nam, the director of the Korean Workers' Party Central Committee international affairs department, met specially with Solarz to tell him he had misunderstood the president and that Pyongyang's demand that the anti-communist laws be repealed has been dropped as a precondition to accepting reunion of families and mail exchanges.
Solarz said he made the trip, arranged through the help of former Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk, because he did not feel he should pass up any opportunity to bring "a reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
The North Koreans expressed willingness to establish direct trade with the south, he said, but had not changed their views on more fundamental issues in the North-South split. Pyongyang is still unwilling to allow Seoul to act as a full party to any talks on U.S. troop withdrawals and other measures that would lead to peace.
It is interested in more direct contacts with the United States, Solarz said, but it would not agree to the U.S. precondition of allowing direct contacts between South Korea and Pyongyang's principal allies, China and the Soviet Union.
Solarz traveled with Ralph Clough, a former Foreign Service officer and Asia expert now doing research at George Washington University. They stayed with Sihanouk at the Cambodian prince's mansion in Pyongyang, built especially for him by the North Koreans.