The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The highest North Korean official to visit Washington in a half century of limited contacts plans a historic meeting with President Clinton today, amid signs the State Department soon may remove the communist country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Clinton will hold a midmorning meeting with the first vice chairman of the country's National Defense Commission, Cho Myong Nok. He is described as the right-hand man to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
After a daylong visit to San Francisco, Cho was arriving here yesterday night for meetings with Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and members of Congress.
During his stay on the West Coast, Cho was hosted by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who stepped down recently as an adviser to Clinton on North Korea. Cho's visit reciprocates a Perry visit to Pyongyang in 1999.
In June, Clinton eased economic sanctions against North Korea but has been unable to take further steps because its terrorist-state status bars the country from receiving all but humanitarian aid.
The Clinton administration has been making a concerted effort to get North Korea on a peaceful path after long years in which Pyongyang was widely regarded as the greatest threat to peace in Asia.
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 supports reconciliation and said he sees Cho's visit as a step toward achieving that goal.
He spoke shortly after the State Department made public a joint U.S.-North Korean communique in which Pyongyang said it opposes all forms of terrorism and believes that all U.N. member states must refrain from such activity.
The statement was based on a series of discussions between the two countries, the latest of which ended last week. Pyongyang has been on the list since the 1987 bombing of a South Korean passenger jet near Myanmar that killed all 115 people on board. Pyongyang has not been implicated in any major incidents since then.
U.S. officials have been advising the North Koreans during the discussions on what they must do to be removed from the terrorism list. One measure of the administration's eagerness for warmer ties is that, of the seven countries on the terrorism list, only North Korea has been getting advice on how to get off of it.
"I personally am very hopeful that, in the coming days, we will make some progress on this very critical and difficult issue," said Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Albright's top assistant for North Korea.
Conservative groups are wary about the North's intentions, noting that the country's military posture has remained essentially unchanged since the breakthrough summit in June between Kim the North Korean leader, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
Another U.S. concern has been North Korean missile exports to Iran and Syria. As Cho was preparing for his Washington visit, the London Sunday Telegraph reported that Libya has taken delivery of North Korean No-Dong surface-to-surface ballistic launchers and missiles, capable of hitting targets in Israel and NATO states in southern Europe.
The State Department had no comment yesterday on the report.