Hermit Kingdom May Be Changing
Barber, Ben, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
A secretive visit to China last week and a summit this month with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung are just the most visible signs of the change that is taking place in the hermit kingdom that is Kim Jong-il's North Korea.
The million-man North Korean army remains poised within striking distance of the South Korean capital, Seoul, and the North's Communist Party and army remain rooted in hostility to the West - testing or selling missiles and possibly nuclear weapons.
But analysts and diplomats cite a number of recent developments indicating the Pyongyang regime may be moving to reduce tensions in Korea, where 37,000 American soldiers serve as a tripwire on the South's side of the border.
"The hermit kingdom has become the hyperactive kingdom," said Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, referring to a string of recent overtures by Pyongyang to foreign governments.
"It is way too early to say that North Korea has reformed, but I think certainly its diplomacy is changing, that seems to reflect a decision that it has to change for the country's well being," Mr. Roth told reporters.
Mr. Kim's May 29-31 train trip to China was believed to have been his first foreign trip in 17 years. It comes ahead of an inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang next month and rumors of a return visit later this summer to Seoul.
In addition, North Korea has opened diplomatic relations this year with Italy and Australia and is negotiating with several other countries, including Japan, Britain, Germany, Canada and the Philippines.
Other developments include a lack of the usual harsh rhetoric during joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States this year, and the replacement last month of a large propaganda sign facing the border with a new one bearing the carefully neutral slogan, "Oppose fratricidal conflict."
Taken altogether, the signs of an opening toward the outside world "look pretty irrevocable," said a diplomatic source who follows Korean events but asked not to be identified.
Analysts say the North may be driven by its well-documented needs for donations of fuel, electricity, food and other economic necessities from the South and from Western donors. …