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
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
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. …