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Offering condolences on the death of North Korean President...

By LORI SANTOS

NAPLES, Italy, July 9 -- Offering condolences on the death of North Korean President Kim Il-sung, U.S. President Bill Clinton Saturday decided against putting U.S. forces on alert in the region and expressed confidence Pyongyang would still participate in critical talks with the United States. After issuing a plea earlier that the high-level negotiations continue, Clinton told reporters at the Group of Seven meeting that despite the startling news of the 82-year-old longtime leader's death, he was buoyed by preliminary 'good news' from Pyongyang. He cited North Korea's signaled intention to proceed with an unprecedented summit with South Korea and the request that American negotiators stand by in Geneva despite a halt to talks Saturday because of the death. 'We have to view these signs as hopeful,' Clinton said. 'We believe that they will stay with their policies, stay with their course -- that this reflects the feelings of the leadership of North Korea and not simply the feelings of Kim Il-sung.' 'The preliminary indications in what must be a very difficult time for them, a sad time, have been encouraging,' he added. 'So I'm hoping that we'll be able to continue to talk.' Moving in the early morning hours once notified of Kim's death, Clinton said he decided against raising the level of alert of the approximately 36,000 American troops in neighboring South Korea on the advice of the area's top commander, the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he made the decision based on their recommendation 'that there was no evident, alarming change in development and we should therefore proceed as we ordinarily would on any other day.'

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National security adviser Anthony Lake told reporters earlier Clinton had carefully considered the U.S. response to the death that came at a critical time in the delicate efforts to resolve the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear production efforts. Both Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, however, admitted to having little information regarding the situation, including whether Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, would succeed him. Christopher said the surviving Kim seemed in charge of the funeral arrangements, however, which were closed to outsiders. Christopher also told reporters the U.S. first would attempt 'to reaffirm' North Korea's commitment to freeze its nuclear program while talks were underway and acknowledged the situation 'bears very careful watching in the next days and weeks.' The hopeful signs from North Korea came after Clinton issued a brief statement expressing U.S. condolences and urging that the third round of talks, just begun the day before in Geneva, continue. Shortly before he was to meet with G-7 summit leaders, he lauded the former president's role in getting the talks restarted and said, 'We hope the talks will resume as appropriate. We believe it is in the interest of both countries to continue.' Officials said the United States had conveyed a willingness to postpone for a few days and would remain in the Swiss capital until the North Korean delegation makes its intentions clear. 'They obviously need to consult with Pyongyang to get their instructions,' said Lake. Clinton's message of patience and understanding appeared to pay off, at least immediately, though the Americans were given no actual assurances the talks would resume at some point. Although largely in the dark on what was evolving in the traditionally secretive North Korean capital, officials also said there was no reason to believe Kim died from causes other than the heart attack reported. 'There is no evidence that this is not the case,' Lake said. By day's end officials had set aside much of the initial concern over the development that could derail the delicate 17-month diplomatic effort to persuade Pyongyang to comply fully with international nuclear inspection requirements. One top official, asked how the death might impact the nuclear stand- off on the Korean Peninsula, said, 'We will have to see what will happen in the talks.' The decision not to put U.S. military forces on a state of alert came after Secretary of Defense William Perry spoke with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili and the Commander of U.S. Forces in South Korea, Gen. Gary Luck. Perry then spoke with Lake, who conveyed the advice of the military aides to the president, who told reporters, 'I approved it.' Lake also said that though South Korea had put its troops on a state of alert, it was at a mild level he called 'a prudent step not taken in the belief that there is a military crisis at hand.' Clinton was not awakened with the news around 6:30 a.m. even though the White House's 24-hour 'situation room' in Washington called Naples with the news around 5 a.m. Aides contended that was because there was no pressing reason to wake him earlier. The U.S.-North Korean talks, reinitiated with the aid of former President Jimmy Carter, started Friday and focused on North Korea's defiance of a commitment to permit international inspection of its nuclear facilities as well as the broader issues of bilateral relations.

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