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Powell Meets with North Korean FM - 2002-07-31

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has held an informal meeting with North Korea's foreign minister, the highest level contact between the two countries in two years. But Pyongyang is sending mixed signals about its intent to pursue further dialogue with the United States.

Secretary Powell briefly met North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun Wednesday on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific security forum in Brunei. The 15-minute chat ended days of speculation about whether the two men would meet.

In recent days, Pyongyang has signaled that it wanted to resume talks with its two main rivals, South Korea and its ally, the United States.

Last week, North Korea unexpectedly expressed regret for June's naval clash between the North and South, which killed sailors on both sides. Then, on Monday, Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov Monday said that North Korea was willing to discuss Korean reconciliation and other issues without preconditions.

Mr. Powell's press secretary, Richard Boucher, said the secretary of state reiterated the long-held U.S. position that any dialogue would have to include several topics - ending North Korea's weapons program, sticking to commitments made under the Agreed Framework and reducing the number of North Korean soldiers deployed near the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.

The Agreed Framework is a 1994 agreement in which North Korea pledged to freeze suspected nuclear weapons programs in exchange for two Western-built light-water reactors. The reactors are under construction, but the United States believes the North is still seeking to build weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush Administration suspended talks with Pyongyang in January, 2001 while it reviewed its North Korean policy. But a few months later, Mr. Powell said that the United States was ready to hold talks again at any time.

Prospects for breaking the diplomatic impasse looked bleak earlier this year, when President Bush described North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," with Iran and Iraq. Wednesday's face-to-face meeting raised some hope of a move toward détente with Pyongyang.

But hours after the meeting, the state-run newspaper in Pyongyang denounced the United States, calling it the "kingpin of evil," bent on conquering the communist nation.

The United States fought on the side of South Korea after the North invaded in 1950. The war ended three years later in a military truce rather than a peace treaty, which left the two sides still technically at war.

Some 37,000 U.S. troops are still in the South to help defend the South. North Korea has repeatedly said that there could be no reconciliation as long as the U.S. troops remain on the peninsula. But the United States says they will stay for as long as they are needed.