In North Korea, Mr. Kim flattered Dr. Albright at every turn. He hosted her at a lavish dinner replete with French wine. She presented him with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. He also surprised her by inviting her to a mass propaganda show at a sports stadium.
Dr. Albright’s aides knew that she might be put in an awkward spot by sitting next to Mr. Kim as the stadium erupted in a frenzy over a highly choreographed performance by well-trained dancers and gymnasts celebrating the 55th anniversary of North Korea’s Communist Party. But they decided to risk her appearance at the event, fearing that rejecting Mr. Kim’s invitation would anger him.
The two sat together in the first ring of the stadium. Halfway through the show, an image of a ballistic missile launch was superimposed on the wall of the stadium in front of her — showcasing the very weapon Dr. Albright had come to persuade the North Koreans to stop producing.
It was an incongruous and embarrassing moment. Dr. Albright had made democracy in dark places her leitmotif but was put in the position of watching, and applauding, a propaganda spectacle by a tyrannical Communist regime.
Afterward she said that Mr. Kim had turned to her as the image of the missile was displayed and “quipped” that the launch of the Taepodong 1 missile that was being shown was the first such test of the weapon — and would be the last.
Dr. Albright was asked by reporters if Mr. Kim had given her an “unqualified pledge” not to test any more missiles. The secretary said that she took his words to be “serious,” but stopped short of giving definitive answers about her talks.
On her return to Washington, the Clinton administration debated whether to accept an invitation for the president to go to Pyongyang to close a deal under which the North would curtail the development of longer-range ballistic missiles in return for billions of dollars. But North Korea would not give up its shorter-range missiles, which posed direct threats to Japan and South Korea, major American allies.
Furthermore, Mr. Kim declined to give assurances of concrete results in advance of a Clinton trip to Pyongyang, and insisted on doing the negotiations “on the spot” there.
And Mr. Clinton at the time had another tantalizing prospect: trying to broker a Middle East peace deal between the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat, and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. That did not succeed either.
Many would later view the Albright-Kim meeting as a propaganda victory for the North Koreans, as the formalities of her trip revolved around paying respects to the Kim dynasty. She visited the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader, and stopped briefly at his bier.
She also visited a kindergarten where American food donations were served under a United Nations program, giving the impression that North Korea’s widespread malnutrition from a nationwide famine was under control.
The warming relations under Mr. Clinton were short-lived. President George W. Bush came into office two months after Dr. Albright’s visit, and a year later, following the Sept. 11 attacks, he denounced North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq, a move that swiftly ended contact with Pyongyang.
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