North Korean officials told a high-ranking U.S. delegation that visited Pyongyang, North Korea, last week that they would "maintain and respect" their agreement not to develop nuclear weapons, according to former defense secretary William J. Perry, the U.S. presidential envoy who led the team.
Reading brief remarks to reporters in Seoul, Perry said the top government and military officials he met during his four-day visit also pledged to continue participating in peace talks with the United States, South Korea and China, as well as in negotiations aimed at curtailing North Korea's production and sales of ballistic missiles.
"[North Korea] publicly described the talks as sincere and expressed mutual respect, and I fully agree with that assessment," said Perry, defense secretary in the first Clinton administration. He added that the highest-ranking U.S. delegation to visit North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War held "intensive" talks that yielded "valuable insight" into North Korea's "thinking on key issues."
Perry took no questions and would not reveal the substance of his discussions until he had returned to Washington to brief President Clinton. He said he had already talked by phone to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. He also met today with top South Korean and Japanese officials before departing for Washington.
While receiving much less attention in recent months than the crisis in Yugoslavia, North Korea remains a critical foreign policy conundrum for Clinton, who has been criticized in Congress as being too soft and lacking a comprehensive policy toward the enigmatic Stalinist state and its million-man army.
North Korea is considered the most immediate threat to security in East Asia, where the United States has about 100,000 troops. U.S. officials are worried that the reclusive regime in Pyongyang is developing nuclear weapons as well as increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles, which can reach South Korea and Japan and soon may be able to hit the U.S. mainland.
Perry's findings will become part of the final report he submits to Clinton after an intensive six-month review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Details of his report have not been released, but it is widely believed to contain incentives for North Korea to drop its missile program and nuclear ambitions. The United States has strict economic sanctions against North Korea, and speculation has centered on whether Perry's report might call for lifting those restrictions in exchange for North Korea dropping its missile and nuclear programs.
Perry held "sincere and frank" talks with Kang Sok Ju, the first vice minister of foreign affairs, said North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. Perry also met with military generals and ranking government leader Kim Yong Nam, who received a letter Perry hand-carried from Clinton.
Kang "stressed that if the relations between the two countries are to be improved, the United States should recognize the system and sovereignty of [North Korea], approach it on an equal footing and fundamentally withdraw its policy hostile towards [North Korea]," the news agency said, referring to the economic sanctions.
Perry's visit did not produce any dramatic breakthroughs, but it wasn't expected to. Perry said he requested a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is believed to have never met an American.
"I did not meet Kim Jong Il and did not expect to meet him, although I expressed that it would be useful for us," Perry said. "Our purpose was to meet a wide range of [North Korean] officials with direct links to Kim Jong Il, and I have no doubt that goal was achieved."
The fact that North Korea received such a high-level delegation, and treated Perry to respectful state media coverage normally reserved for its friends from Syria, Libya and Iraq, was seen as a positive sign.
In addition to his official meetings, Perry rode a North Korean subway, visited rice paddies at a collective farm and attended an acrobatics show. He visited a hospital that has benefited from U.S. humanitarian aid and the birthplace of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, the dictator who ruled North Korea for more than 45 years until his death in 1994. Publicly showing respect to Kim is required of all visitors to North Korea.
Perry's activities were covered in the official North Korean media without using "imperialists" and "aggressors" or other labels routinely added to any mention of the United States.
Perry said his seven-member team, which also included State Department counselor Wendy R. Sherman, a National Security Council official and five others, was "warmly received with kindness."
As Perry's visit got underway, a team of U.S. nuclear specialists finished inspecting an underground site in North Korea and announced that it found no signs that it was being used develop nuclear weapons.
The suspect site at Kumchang-ri, spotted by spy satellites last year, sparked huge criticism of Clinton's North Korea policy in Congress. Legislators said they would withhold funding for a program under which North Korea agreed not to build nuclear weapons in exchange for shipments of fuel oil and construction of two nuclear power plants.
That 1994 agreement has been the cornerstone of Clinton's North Korea policy, and he must certify to Congress by next month that North Korea is keeping its end of the deal and not attempting to secretly build nuclear weapons.
Correspondent Joohee Cho in Seoul contributed to this story.
CAPTION: U.S. envoy William J. Perry, center, arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea, last Tuesday with a high-level U.S. delegation for talks. Perry said the Communist government pledged to respect an agreement not to develop nuclear weapons.