Representatives of the United States and North Korea met in Berlin from January 22-28 in a continuing effort to improve their bilateral relationship and to address U.S. concerns about North Korea's ballistic missile program. Ambassador Charles Kartman, U.S. special envoy for the Korean peace talks, led a delegation to meet the North Koreans, headed by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan. Though no substantive matters were settled, the parties agreed to meet again at the end of February to cement the agenda for a March visit to Washington by a high-level North Korean delegation. In September 1999, similar high-level discussions preceded a partial lifting of U.S. economic sanctions and a corresponding North Korean pledge to suspend missile testing for the duration of the ongoing talks. (See ACT, September/October 1999.)
Pyongyang's missile pledge was brought to the fore immediately prior to the commencement of the January talks. The Korean Central News Agency, the press organ of the North Korean government, quoted a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who indicated that the January 18 test of the U.S. national missile defense system could lead to the resumption of Pyongyang's missile program. "The U.S. behavior has compelled the DPRK to take our moratorium into a serious consideration. We will make an appropriate decision, watching its future movement," he said.
The meeting also followed another minor controversy about the relative sophistication of North Korea's missile program. Commercial satellite photographs first made public January 3 by the Cable News Network revealed a primitive missile facility lacking several components commonly associated with Western test programs, including rail links, substantial infrastructure and propellant storage areas, suggesting the danger from North Korea might not be as great as Washington has maintained. State Department spokesman James Rubin dismissed the notion that the threat was exaggerated: "It is our judgment from a panoply of intelligence sources and methods...that there is a genuine threat and a risk from the potential missile program of North Korea."