WASHINGTON -- In a groundbreaking encounter, President Clinton met Tuesday with a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, hoping to build on recent progress toward an accommodation with a once-bitter rival.
Cho Myong Nok, the first vice chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, arrived without ceremony at the White House for the midmorning meeting.
Clinton is the first American president to meet with a North Korean official.
Cho began his day with a courtesy call on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the State Department.
Later, Albright was to play host at a dinner for Cho after he met with congressional leaders -- all this for a representative of a country with which the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations.
He is the highest ranking North Korean official to visit Washington.
With tens of thousands of U.S. troops deployed in South Korea for decades, tensions on the peninsula have been an American obsession. Despite skepticism in some quarters, officials believe recent developments offer the prospect of a peaceful evolution.
In a written statement he issued Monday night on his arrival in Washington, Cho said he shared that optimism.
"It is an important task before our two governments to promote the (bilateral) relations onto a new stage consonant with the environment of peace and reconciliation prevailing on the Korean peninsula at this historic moment into a new century."
"During our visit we will do our best to have frank discussions with American leadership so as to remove deeply rooted and age-old distrust and make an epochal change in advancing the relations between our two countries onto a new stage."
In June, Kim Jong Il had what was widely seen as a highly successful summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. That same month, Clinton eased economic sanctions against North Korea that had been in place since the Korean War.
The talks here were expected to focus on North Korea's missile development program and the possibility of Pyongyang's removal from the State Department list of countries alleged to sponsor international terrorism.
After an overnight visit to San Francisco, Cho arrived in Washington on Monday night. Besides Clinton and Albright, he also planned talks with Defense Secretary William Cohen.
During his stay on the West Coast, Cho's host was former Defense Secretary William Perry, who stepped down recently as an adviser to Clinton on North Korea. Cho's visit reciprocated a Perry visit to Pyongyang in 1999.
Don Oberdorfer, a Korea expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said U.S. officials were "amazed and pleased" when the North Koreans offered to send Cho to Washington. The administration had been expecting a lower ranking official from the foreign ministry.
"The main concerns of the U.S. are regarding military and security issues. This guy is in a much better position to speak to those than a foreign ministry type," Oberdorfer said.
He described Cho as a top general who is outranked only by Kim Jong Il himself on the defense commission.
Clinton acknowledged last week that he strongly supported reconciliation and said he saw Cho's visit as a step toward achieving that goal.
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