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Clinton, Putin discuss N. Korean offer

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NAGO, Japan — President Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked at length Friday about a new North Korean offer to give up its missile program if it gets international assistance in launching space satellites, according to senior White House officials.

The leaders' discussion signaled U.S. interest in pursuing the idea, which Putin brought from Pyongyang after meeting Wednesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

"There are more questions than there are answers" about the offer, an administration official said. But the United States, which has long viewed North Korea's missile program as a major military threat, is interested.

"If what's envisioned here would be for North Korea to give up, to forswear its ballistic missile program . . . that would be something we would be prepared to pursue," the official said.

Clinton and Putin met privately for 75 minutes during an intermission in the G-8 economic summit in Okinawa. Much of their discussion was about weapon proliferation, but they did not bridge their differences over America's proposed National Missile Defense system.

Instead, Putin simply reaffirmed his country's opposition to the limited system that is under consideration by President Clinton. That system would place 100 interceptor rockets in Alaska to defend against missile attacks from unpredictable hostile nations.

The United States has cited the North Korean missile threat as a principal reason for building a missile defense system, though opponents of the plan say North Korea's recent, swift moves toward diplomatic openness lessen the need for missile defense.

Putin announced this latest twist in the issue after traveling to Pyongyang Wednesday, the first visit to North Korea by a Russian leader. A Russian official said here Friday that Kim has offered to drop his missile development program "if the international community would help North Korea launch a satellite once or twice a year."

"We need further discussions," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If it was clearly understood that the launch capability was going to be outside the territory of North Korea and thoroughly subject to international technology controls," the United States might agree, he said.

"But a very dangerous idea would be that the international community would provide actual launch capability, that is, rockets to be launched from North Korean territory," he added.

It is unclear to U.S. officials whether Kim envisions a launch outside Korea. "It's a very germane and immediate question," said the official. "We need to get a bit more about what actually transpired between President Putin and Kim Jong Il on that."

U.S. officials said Putin offered the North Korean proposal because "he clearly thought it was something to be studied and discussed with us." But "President Putin did not say what what he heard in Pyongyang was some sort of slam-dunk rebuttal to the premise of NMD."

U.S. and Russian officials will be meeting again over the weekend to get a clearer understanding of the proposal.

Clinton and Putin apparently spent little time hashing over disagreements on the NMD. Putin told Clinton the Russian arguments for opposing the program "are well-known."

Russia and China both view a decision to pursue the NMD as a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which they view as the cornerstone of international weapons control agreements. Clinton has said he will decide by fall whether to start building the system. He is scheduled to meet Putin again in early September at the United Nations.

Several other leaders at the summit here have expressed their wariness of the American missile defense plan. The G-8 leaders Friday approved a statement applauding last month's historic meeting between leaders of North and South Korea, and saying they "welcome the constructive attitude" shown by North Korea.

Russia and the United States did announce technical progress in an agreement they made last month in Moscow, setting a deadline of this year to establish a joint U.S.-Russian center for early-warning launch detection.

The private talks between the leaders was in the backdrop of the start of the three-day economic conference, and a foreshortened trip by Clinton to Japan. His aides acknowledged he is considering leaving Okinawa Saturday night — skipping the final G-8 meeting Sunday — if he is needed in Camp David to continue negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.