North Korea: Why It's Suddenly Ready To Come In From The Cold

North Korea's enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, is known for brinksmanship. For years he has been rattling nuclear sabers to get money and other concessions from the U.S. and its allies. But recently, Kim has been attempting to break his country out of its Cold War-era shell. In an unusual flurry of diplomacy, North Korea has embarked upon improving relations with the world's capitals: first Tokyo and Washington, and now Seoul. Although the two Koreas are technically still at war, they have scheduled a summit meeting for June 12-14.

The summit--if it happens--could open a new era for the isolated North, easing decades of hostile relations. The diplomatic efforts mark a sort of "coming out" for the 58-year-old leader, who has been slowly consolidating his power since he took over from his more charismatic father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Over the years, Kim has annointed a younger, more flexible generation of officials, replacing his father's old guard.

Now, North Korea watchers say, Kim has enough confidence in his authority over the military and the Politburo to move the country to the next stage of openness without jeopardizing his hold on power. "Until recently, Kim Jong Il had to place emphasis on internal control and simply had no room to get his diplomatic act together," says Koh Il Dong, a fellow at the Korea Development Institute (KDI), a government-funded think tank.

SLOW PAYOFF. It's about time Kim tried to resuscitate his country. North Korea's war threats and missile launches have secured just enough aid to avoid collapse. So Kim is gambling that improved diplomatic ties--particularly with the South--could help North Korea get more foreign investment, loans, and access to international commodities markets to sell some of its products, including magnesium, nickel, and tungsten.

North Korea's economy has shrunk by a third in the last decade, according to KDI. Floods and famine have hit hard, killing hundreds of thousands. The economy finally stopped contracting last year. But in order to grow again, North Korea needs foreign capital and technology. Pyongyang fears a rapid opening will bring the same type of collapse that brought down the Soviet Union, its former patron.

So Kim's strategy is to go slow, picking up where his father left off. The elder Kim first scheduled a summit with the South in 1994, but he died suddenly before it happened. The young Kim began his outreach just last year, and the campaign is only now showing a payoff: Diplomatic relations with Italy began Jan. 4, 2000; normalization talks are going on with Tokyo, and a high-level visit is being negotiated with Washington.

The U.S. has been pushing North Korea to talk directly with Seoul, and the two showed a rare degree of coordination when they simultaneously announced the summit on Apr. 10. A lot of credit goes to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who has been courting the North with his "Sunshine Policy" for years. The announcement, which came three days before the South's parliamentary elections, is the peace dividend he had been promising voters. South Korean businesses are poised to invest billions north of the border. "They are the only ones ready to take risks in the North," says Lee Ki Won, of Seoul's Institute of North Korea Studies.

Washington is offering its own peace dividend, too. The Clinton Administration has lifted some trade, banking, and other decades-old sanctions against the North and is hinting at other benefits if Pyongyang publicly renounces terrorism. The hope is that Kim is desperate enough--and secure enough--to move the country forward.