As eight members of Congress prepared to leave Washington to accept the remains of the first U.S. servicemen repatriated by North Korea since 1954, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations called for "practical measures" to improve relations between the two countries.
In an interview last week, Ambassador Ho Jong said the North Korean government would like to discuss with U.S. and South Korean officials replacing the 1953 armistice, which ended the Korean War, with a permanent peace treaty.
From his remarks, Jong appeared eager for North Korea to gain credit for its "humanitarian gesture." The return of the remains of five servicemen will be played out at the Panmunjom Peace Village in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during the Memorial Day weekend, a timing that should ensure wide publicity for the ceremony.
But the interview at U.N. headquarters also illustrated that a wide gap remains between Washington and Pyongyang.
"We are real suspicious about the real willingness of the United States' side" to make meaningful steps toward easing tensions, Jong said at one point.
Although North Korea has called the presence of about 44,000 U.S. troops in South Korea a primary irritant, Jong said any reduction in those troops would be viewed by many in North Korea as more a reflection of "your domestic budget problems" than a step toward reducing the North's fears.
A Pentagon spokesman said such a step is underway. About 2,000 aircraft support troops are being removed and overall Korean troop strength is falling as part of a projected 10 percent cut in Pacific forces, the spokesman said.
Jong suggested that if the United States wants to take "confidence-building steps," the Pentagon should scale back the military exercise called "Team Spirit" conducted annually in South Korea. According to Pentagon officials, the exercise has been trimmed to 180,000 troops this year from 200,000.
State Department officials have said the United States welcomes the return of the remains, a step U.S. officials have long insisted must precede any improvement in relations with North Korea.
"We welcome this, even if it's 36 years late," said an official who asked not to be identified and who noted the North Koreans had promised to take such actions 36 years ago. They offered to return the five remains in 1987 but withdrew the offer after the State Department branded North Korea a terrorist nation following the bombing of a South Korean airliner in Bangkok that was blamed on a North Korean agent.
Asked why North Korea was acting now, the official suggested North Korean authorities may be troubled by the turmoil in the communist world and are attempting "to grope their way toward better relations" with the West.
The turmoil has cost North Korean President Kim Il Sung one of his strong European allies, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, who was toppled from power and executed, and could threaten the large amounts of military aid the Soviet Union provides to North Korea, the official said. He noted that the Soviet Union has expanded its diplomatic contacts with South Korea and said the latest North Korean gestures toward the United States may be a countermove by Pyongyang.