A Coke With That Kimchi?

THE HERMIT KINGDOM MAY soon share a Coke and a smile with the U.S. Washington announced small steps on Jan. 20 to relax the 1950 ban on trade with North Korea, permitting direct phone links between the two countries and allowing American visitors to pay hotel bills with U.S. credit cards. The idea is to encourage further openings by Kim Jong-Il's Marxist redoubt, following last fall's U.S.-North Korea nuclear pact.

If the embargo is eased further, Coca-Cola is one company poised to peddle its wares to the North Koreans. The president of Coke's Pacific Group, Douglas Daft, recently hosted North Korea's ambassador to the U.N. at a private luncheon at Coke's Atlanta headquarters.

Although American long-distance carriers are now free to start setting up service, it's unclear how long this will take. AT&T says that, while it wants to discuss a deal with Pyongyang, there has thus far been no contact. Company technicians must scout out North Korea's telecom infrastructure to see how to make the linkup. Perhaps, says AT&T spokesman Herb Linnen, they can use an existing undersea cable between North Korea and Japan.

Meanwhile, other countries are stepping up their commercial relations with Pyongyang. The first foreign bank to arrive in North Korea will be Amsterdam-based ING Bank.