Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hopes to chat with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun next week on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific security forum in Bangkok.
If such a meeting takes place, it would be the highest-level contact between the United States and a country our State Department only recently stopped calling a "rogue."
But don't expect any breakthrough on North Korea's missile program, which is President Clinton's primary justification for wanting to build a $60 billion anti-missile shield strongly opposed by Russia, China and some of our European allies, who fear it will undermine existing arms control agreements.
Four years of on-again, off-again missile talks have produced only one agreement between Washington and Pyongyang: a North Korean promise to stop testing the long-range Taepodong missile in return for lifting U.S. trade barriers.
The three-stage rocket, first fired over Japan in 1998, unnerved the region and gave rise to the belief that North Korea could develop a missile capable of hitting an American city by 2005.
Since then, Washington has been trying to convince Pyongyang to stop exporting missiles and missile parts to Pakistan and the Middle East. But North Korea says missile exports are one of its few sources of hard currency needed to stave off economic collapse.
Talks broke down earlier this month over Pyongyang's demand for $1 billion in compensation for every year it refrains from exporting missiles. "The North Koreans should not be compensated for agreeing to stop conducting an act which they should not be conducting in the first place," huffed Robert Einhorn, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Non-proliferation. But that is precisely what has happened over the years.
North Korea has made an art form of blackmailing the United States and its Asian allies, primarily South Korea and Japan, into paying for the removal of real or imagined threats posed by its weapons of mass destruction.
In 1994, Pyongyang used allied suspicions that it was manufacturing nuclear bombs to secure a promise of two new nuclear reactors, worth $4.6 billion, and a 10-year supply of free fuel oil in return for closing down its plutonium-producing plant at Yongbon.
It then turned around and built a new nuclear complex at Keumjongri. When U.S. inspectors demanded access to the plant, Pyongyang sought a fee of $300 million but settled for fertilizer and advice on how to grow high-yield potatoes.
Over the next four years, North Korea's economy nose-dived, crippled by the loss of Soviet subsidies, barter trade with China and natural disasters caused by four consecutive years of drought and floods. But Pyongyang secured massive amounts of humanitarian aid while maintaining a bellicose stance toward its donors.
The combination of begging and belligerence led to the historic June summit between North Korea's Kim Jong-il and President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea. But much of their announced agreement turned out to be a rehash of older pacts, specifically the Joint Declaration of 1972 and the Basic Agreement of 1992.
And, while both call for eventual reunification of the divided peninsula, only 100 of more than 7 million South Koreans with family ties to the North will be able to meet their relatives in August reunions agreed to by both countries. This is but a fraction of 76,000 South Koreans who applied.
Adding to their anguish is not knowing the number of relatives killed in North Korea's famine, estimated at 2 million to 3 million. The only other reunions allowed by both regimes in 1985 involved only 50 people.
In an interview with the Financial Times, South Korea's Kim speculated that reunification could take 20 or 30 years. Its cost, estimated at $1 trillion, would be much greater than the reunification of Germany, he said, because South Korea is much more economically advanced than the impoverished North.
Besides the cost, there is a psychological barrier erected by decades of isolation. Moon Huyn Choi, who travels to North Korea four times a year for an institute promoting reunification, admits that "every time I go there I feel like I'm on another planet."
Contact Holger Jensen of the Denver Rocky Mountain News at www.denver-rmn.com