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Background: Thawing Relations

October 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: On his arrival in San Francisco Sunday, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok became the highest ranking North Korean official ever to visit the U.S.. Jo’s official title is vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, but he’s widely regarded as the North Korean leader’s right-hand man. The former fighter pilot wore an ordinary business suit to his first official meeting yesterday at the State Department. But he changed into his military uniform before his next stop, at the White House. U.S. officials read much into the gesture.

WENDY SHERMAN: He was also, I think, conveying a very important message to us and to the citizens of North Korea and of the region that this effort to improve relations is one that is shared not only by the civilian side, by the foreign ministry, but by the military as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Jo’s visit is one of several signs that North Korea, one of the globe’s most insular countries, has begun opening its doors to the world ever so slightly. The U.S. and North Korea don’t have diplomatic relations, but President Clinton sent former Defense Secretary William Perry to Pyongyang last year to discuss U.S. concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Then last June, the leaders of the two Koreas — Kim Dae Jung of the South and Kim Jong Il of the North — met in a first ever summit. The two sides — still technically at war — declared they would ease tensions and promote eventual reunification. Within days, Washington followed through on Perry’s recommendation to ease some economic sanctions against the North.

Easing of sanctions

RICHARD BOUCHER: The sanctions that we’re easing will allow most imports and exports of non-sensitive consumer goods. Also permitted in the easing are direct financial transfers from one person to another.

MARGARET WARNER: In the next few months the Koreas took steps to rebuild a cross-border railroad line connecting their capitals and arranged brief reunions for dozens of families separated for some five decades since the Korean War. Washington is looking for more from Pyongyang to stop testing and exporting long-range missiles and to abandon its now frozen nuclear program. North Korea wants to receive economic aid and be removed from the U.S. list of countries that support terrorism. In July, North Korean Leader Kim told Russian President Vladimir Putin he might be willing to end the missile program if the west would help North Korea launch its satellites. Those topics were among several Jo discussed with U.S. officials. At a State Department dinner last night, both sides expressed optimism.

JO MYONG ROK (speaking through interpreter): We are optimistic in our statement that we can have improvements in the relations between our two countries in the years ahead. That is totally in the best interest of our two people.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: In most of the world the Cold War ended a decade ago. On the Korean Peninsula it has lingered. But what was frozen can thaw and what has been contested ground can, over time, become common ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Jo is due to end his official visit today and return home tomorrow.