Finally, A Way To Pyongyang's Heart?

The food crisis just might lead to formal peace talks

It's spring in North Korea, a time when bright green rice shoots hold the promise of food. But this isolated country of 23 million people is buckling under the strain of hunger as food stocks reach critically low levels long before the fall harvest. Although the country needs 1.2 million tons of food aid to get through a difficult summer, so far foreign donors have pledged just 9,300 tons of rice for May. That shortfall is bringing signs of another type of spring--a diplomatic one.

With one of the most intense flurries of activity since the Stalinist regime closed itself off above the 38th parallel after the Korean War, officials from Pyongyang are making conciliatory gestures to the West (table). The hard-line government, facing food shortages critical enough to warrant a "special alert" from the United Nations, appears to be trying to inch out of isolation. Washington, forced to respond to Pyongyang's overtures, is dangling a possible deal: If North Korea agrees to take part in four-party peace talks proposed by President Clinton, the U.S. will ease its 46-year economic embargo. The talks, which would include China and South Korea, would attempt to negotiate a peace treaty at last on the Korean peninsula.

If all goes according to plan, North Korea could be allowed to export goods, such as zinc and textiles, to the U.S. to earn the hard currency to buy much needed food and oil. An easing of sanctions could also allow the unfreezing of North Korea's modest assets deposited in U.S. banks and would allow U.S. companies to invest.

But first, the Americans want Pyongyang to sit down at the table with archenemy Seoul. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, who met his South Korean and Japanese counterparts during a May 13-16 trip to the region, said the Administration was considering easing sanctions but not "at this time." One reason the Clintonites have to proceed cautiously is that Republican Presidential contender Bob Dole accused the Administration in early May of "coddling" the North Koreans. Some conservatives also accuse Pyongyang of continuing to hide alleged nuclear-weapons capabilities.

SORRY PLIGHT. Although no one believes the North's communist leaders have changed their stripes, the deepening food crisis makes them more willing to talk. When two senior North Korean delegations visited the U.S. in April, both urged closer ties with Washington and indicated the severity of their plight. "They're sending out quite an SOS. on food, a kind I haven't heard before," says Selig Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who met the delegations.

In other gestures, Pyongyang agreed on May 9 to allow U.S. soldiers to comb for remains of missing American servicemen in the North Korean countryside, and it dropped its demand for compensation from $4 million to $2 million. On another sensitive issue, the North Koreans attended missile-nonproliferation talks in Berlin in April for the first time after long insisting that their actions were not open for discussion. North Korea's exports of surface-to-surface missile parts to Iran and Syria rank high on Washington's list of concerns.

North Korea is also holding to its promise of abandoning its suspect nuclear program. The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), a consortium that is financed mostly by South Korea and Japan, is on track to build nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang's agreement to put its nuclear program under international scrutiny. KEDO negotiators expect to agree to a site for the reactors this year. At the same time, progress is being made in negotiations on the politically sensitive issue of allowing South Korean workers who are building the plant to travel safely inside North Korea.

Worried about the possibility of the North's economic collapse, the Americans are keen on persuading Seoul to soften its opposition to helping Pyongyang. On May 11, U.S. Ambassador to Seoul James T. Laney said it was time to "tone down our rhetoric and the lurid language" often used to describe the world's most isolated regime.

At least for now, Seoul seems cautiously optimistic. One reason is that North Korea has started asking the U.S. for more information about precisely how the proposed four-party peace talks would be structured and what steps Washington will take to ease economic sanctions. The North is "seriously considering" the peace talks, says South Korean government spokesman Yang Yun Kil, who calls Pyongyang's stance "an encouraging sign."

FALSE SPRINGS. There is some progress in business deals between the two Koreas as well. In April, South Korea gave three companies permission to invest $19 million in North Korean manufacturing ventures. Letting more companies invest in the North will depend on improvement in North-South relations. South Korea imported $223 million worth of goods from the North last year, nearly half of Pyongyang's total exports of $590 million. "We are willing to step up economic cooperation to help North Korea build up its economy," says Yang. In early 1995, as part of the KEDO agreement, the U.S. allowed AT&T to set up telephone and fax links and legalized North Korean transfers of money through U.S. banks.

There have been many false springs in dealing with Pyongyang in years past. Indeed, analysts warn that North Korea, which rarely misses a chance to undercut the South, may be doing little more than probing for splits between Washington and Seoul. "We are quite a ways from formal peace negotiations," cautions Brookings Institution scholar Helmut Sonnenfeldt.

What is different now, though, is the stunning disintegration of the North Korean economy. "People are preoccupied with finding food," says Michael Breen, a senior partner at Seoul-based consultancy Breen & Gustaveson, which specializes in North Korea. "That is creating a crisis for the Workers' Party." Breen and others note that Koreans are resilient people, and the government shows no imminent signs of collapse. But it is clear that hunger and a desire for stability are pushing both Pyongyang and Washington toward easing decades of deadlock.

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