President George W. Bush has always talked tough about North Korea. He angered Pyongyang and irritated South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in January, for example, when he named the communist North as one of three nations in an "axis of evil." For Kim, that seemed like one more slap at his effort to improve relations with the North before his five-year term ends next February. Now, though, there are signs that Bush's saber-rattling just might produce an opening in the Cold War's last bastion.
After a year-long hiatus in serious discussions between North and South, a thaw in relations is in the offing. On Apr. 3, South Korea's presidential envoy, Lim Dong Won, headed to Pyongyang with a personal letter from Kim Dae Jung for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The message: Seoul will help the North mend ties with the U.S. if the two Koreas can resume their own dialogue. Pyongyang has signaled that Kim Jong Il and other leaders are ready to discuss key security issues, including weapons of mass destruction and ways to avoid military confrontation. "This will broaden the scope of talks and enable Seoul to play a mediating role between North Korea and the U.S.," predicts Lee Jong Seok, a North Korea specialist at think tank Sejong Institute. Adds L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington: "[Pyongyang] may think the best avenue for improving relations with the U.S. now is to go through Seoul."
Kim Jong Il has numerous reasons for returning to the negotiating table, analysts say. One is his country's need for food. South Korea provided only 100,000 tons of grain last year, vs. 500,000 in 2000, when the two Kims held a historic summit. Kim Jong Il also apparently wants to engage Seoul while Kim Dae Jung is still around. A leading candidate in December's presidential elections is opposition leader Lee Hoi Chang, who is much less conciliatory toward the North.
But an even more important driving force for Pyongyang may be two complex security issues that threaten to heighten tensions in coming months. North Korea has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on missile testing since 1999. But without a resumption of negotiations with the U.S., Pyongyang has indicated that it could resume testing next year. That would aggravate relations with North Korea's neighbors as well as Washington. "They clearly want to engage the U.S. in talks over missiles," says Lho Kyong Soo, professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Pyongyang is also under pressure to open up its nuclear-power facilities soon to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under a 1994 agreement with the U.S., inspectors must determine whether North Korea has ever produced weapons-grade plutonium before it can take delivery of two new nuclear reactors. The IAEA says the inspection will take three years, but Pyongyang is reluctant to admit inspectors for that length of time. Talks with Washington could break the deadlock.
As Lim heads to North Korea, his challenge is to convince Kim Jong Il that in the post-September 11 world, his country has little choice but to open up. If Lim can jump-start serious negotiations between North and South, analysts predict talks between Washington and Pyongyang could follow soon thereafter. Indeed, two low-level meetings have already taken place between U.S. and North Korean officials at the U.N. But if the North refuses to grant access to its nuclear plants or resumes missile testing, the Korean peninsula could be headed into a dangerous new phase. Much is riding on Seoul's new overture.
By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, with Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady