Washington Hoping to improve ties with a bitter antagonist, a top North Korean official carried an unprecedented message to President Clinton on Tuesday outlining proposals to expand on progress Pyongyang has made in easing tensions with a longtime U.S. ally, South Korea.
The letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was delivered to Clinton by a senior military aide, Jo Myong Rok, whose visit to the White House represented another milestone in the developing U.S.-North Korean relationship.
The message appeared to be part of a North Korean effort to keep up the momentum generated by the breakthrough summit the leaders of the two Koreas held in June.
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said Kim's letter spelled ways in which the North Koreans "might further the exchange of ideas about how to lower tensions in the Korean peninsula." Siewert provided no details.
Ambassador Wendy Sherman, the top State Department official for North Korea policy, characterized the 45-minute meeting between Clinton and Jo as "very positive, direct and warm."
"They both agreed that the Inter-Korean summit has created an opportunity for this historic meeting here today," she said.
Jo is described by U.S. officials as the right hand man to Kim.
His official title is first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, ranking him second in line in North Korea to Kim, who serves as chairman.
On arrival Monday night in Washington, Jo said his visit was designed to remove "deeply rooted and age-old distrust and make an epochal change in advancing the relations between our two countries onto a new stage."
The friendly comments on both sides contrasted sharply with the relationship's official status: no diplomatic relations between the two and the presence of 37,000 American troops in South Korea to guard against a possible North Korean invasion.
It was not long ago that the north was routinely dismissed here as a self-isolating pariah state. Pyongyang, in turn, customarily resorted to the most strident invective to describe the United States.