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Indonesian President Prepares for North Asia Tour - 2002-03-23

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri leaves Sunday for official visits in North Asia. Her four-nation tour is seen as aimed at heightening Ms. Megawati's standing on the continent. But Ms. Megawati may well play a substantive role in helping to revive stalled reconciliation talks between North and South Korea.

Indonesian officials say President Megawati Sukarnoputri will try to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to re-open dialogue with South Korea. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda confirmed that the president had received a request from South Korea to take the diplomatic initiative.

Kim Jong Il and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-jung, held an historic summit in July 2000. They agreed to a series of confidence-building measures as a path to eventual reunification after more than 50 years of division. Those efforts have since stalled. Prospects for jump-starting closer contacts further dimmed when South Korea's main ally, the United States, placed communist North Korea under a policy review when the Bush Administration took office in 2001.

South Korea and Washington have repeatedly pushed for new talks on easing tensions on the peninsula as well as on halting North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang has rebuffed all offers so far.

President Megawati will be the first foreign leader to visit North Korea since January, when President Bush called North Korea part of an "axis of evil" intent on developing weapons of mass destruction.

It is not clear what specific proposals President Megawati may have to offer. But she may be able to draw on North Korea's and Indonesia's previous warm relations, as well as previous personal contact.

Mr. Habib is with the Indonesian Embassy in Pyongyang. He says Ms. Megawati's specific reason to visit North Korea is to honor the basic historical relationship between Indonesia and North Korea. The relationship was established by both of the presidents' parents. Ms. Megawati and Kim Jong Il met decades ago when their fathers were heads of state and worked together to found the Non-aligned movement during the height of the Cold War in the mid-1960s.

President Megawati begins her trip in China on Sunday, where she will work to improve trade ties. She also will visit South Korea and India. But even in China, Korean issues will figure prominently, as Beijing has a long alliance with Pyongyang and a strong economic relationship with Seoul.