It's Time to End the Korean Cold War

Article excerpt

THE Korean cold war is easing, ever so slightly. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is talking to both South Korea and Japan, encouraging foreign investment, and hosting increasing numbers of American visitors. Although dated propaganda films still include ritualistic attacks on the "imperialist South Korean puppet regime," officials meeting with Westerners focus on the possibility of positive future relations.

Unfortunately, the peninsula remains host to perhaps the sharpest military confrontation in the world, with nearly 2 million soldiers facing one another across the 155-mile demilitarized zone. Although the two Koreas signed a nonaggression pact last year, they remain deadlocked over nuclear inspections and other arms-control measures.

Political talks are also not going well between North and South and are virtually nonexistent between Pyongyang and the United States. America maintains an economic embargo against North Korea and does not recognize its government. Both measures are intended to put pressure on Pyongyang, but both are self-defeating.

Although the economic sanctions undoubtedly hurt North Korea, such a unilateral measure inevitably can have only a limited impact. The North Korean elite that decides policy appears to be managing well enough: Croplands around Pyongyang seem flush, and Japanese products fill hard-currency stores.

Consumer products are limited, but that reflects socialist economics more than American policy. If the rumored famine is true, its effects have not reached the capital, major cities like Kaesong and Nampo, and the rural areas that I saw recently while driving in the country.

While the embargo may be doing little to bring Pyongyang to its knees, it is clearly resented by North Korean officials, who profess their determination to resist making concessions in response to it. Moreover, restricting North Korean contact with outsiders does nothing to encourage openness: It would be far better to flood the North with American businessmen and tourists.

Until recently the US has avoided high-level contacts with Pyongyang and refused to consider establishing official diplomatic ties. Messages have been passed through intermediaries, but that is no substitute for direct conversations.

For 40 years the ban on official relations made some sense, since North Korea's allies, the USSR and China, refused to have any contact with the South. …