Global Policy Forum

Neighbors Sense Change in North Korea


By Doug Struck

Washington Post
November 1, 1999

Seoul - North Korea's neighbors have detected a slight thaw in their chilly relations with the Stalinist state after its recent pact with the United States, leading to a number of proposals for more commerce with the usually closed country. The Japanese are forming a delegation, led by a former prime minister, that will likely propose resumption of charter airline flights between the two countries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul wants to send a group to explore business opportunities now that the United States has relaxed its trade embargo. And Hyundai, the South Korean multinational company, is shuttling back and forth with hopes to build an industrial park in North Korea.

North Korea is expected to reciprocate these signs of interest by sending at least a mid-level official in coming months to visit its two chief antagonists: the United States and South Korea. These moves follow negotiations in September in Berlin in which North Korea agreed to stop testing new missiles in return for a relaxation of economic and political sanctions by the United States. Even as the U.S. Congress debates a strategy of gradually improving relations with North Korea, proposed by President Bill Clinton's coordinator for North Korea policy, William Perry, the Berlin agreement has started the two countries along that path.

The regime in Pyongyang has not changed its public persona; its propaganda outlets continue to churn out fierce rhetoric. However, some officials and observers see indications of a new attitude. ''It seems North Korea is finally making a shift in direction toward accommodation,'' said the South Korean foreign minister, Hong Soon Young. ''It doesn't mean it's speedy, but it is a shift.'' ''At least they have shown some signs they can negotiate with South Korea," said Hyun In Taek, a political scientist at Korea University. ''This is a little, meaningful sign,'' he said.

Others are more wary of declaring that North Korea, which has a history of contradictory signals, has made any fundamental change. ''I think it's far too early to tell,'' said Lho Kyongsoo, a political scientist at Seoul National University. ''All the Berlin agreement says is that North Korea wants to stay engaged with the United States. It's inevitably going to be a process of two steps forward and one step back.'' Still, even the talk of new relations with North Korea is in sharp contrast to the mood in early August. Then, North Korea was threatening to test-fire a new long-range missile and the drumbeat of warnings to North Korea by the United States, Japan and South Korea was ata near-crisis tempo.

They feared a second launching of Pyongyang's Taepodong-2 missile. The first sailed over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998, causing considerable consternation. The three-stage rocket, if perfected, would put targets as far away as Hawaii and Alaska in the range of North Korea, which has sought nuclear weapons and is thought to possess chemical and biological weapons.

In Berlin, the North Korean government agreed to forgo further test launchings and the United States agreed to take steps to ease the half-century-old political and economic sanctions. On Sept. 17, Washington lifted key parts of a trade embargo, permitting trade in consumer goods and raw materials, U.S. investment, and landings in North Korea by U.S. airlines.

North Korea, in return, resumed the stalled process of repatriating the remains of Korean War soldiers. Last week, it turned over the suspected remains of four U.S. servicemen. Even North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, seemed to get in the cooperative spirit. In a meeting Oct. 1 with officials of Hyundai Group, Mr. Kim is reported to have remarked that Seoul appeared to be a ''global city'' - a rare compliment that made headlines in South Korea. And North Korea has begun satellite TV broadcasts that can be seen outside the country.

More Information on Sanctions in North Korea


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