- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000


TOKYO A measure that might be called the "belligerence index" is at its lowest point in years on the Korean Peninsula, suggesting to some analysts that improvements, diplomatic progress and possibly a breakthrough may be in the offing.
Any optimism must be carefully hedged. The relative calm along the North-South border, the most heavily armed in Asia, if not the world, belies a 50-year standoff in which the protagonists when they talk at all engage in horrific allegations and threats.
But monitors of the uneasy truce believe they see outlines of something resembling a breakthrough. They cite timing and economic realities that could lead to an inching forward of the diplomatic process.
"The two Koreas are having talks through various channels, and there is a good chance that the two would hold a summit," said South Korean National Security Adviser Hwang Won-tak on Monday.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has been predicting a fresh opening and has said he would call for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il if his ruling Millennium Democratic Party wins a majority in April 13 parliamentary elections in South Korea.
This, analysts say, would give new momentum to President Kim's "sunshine policy," of political, economic and cultural exchange between the two rivals.
"It would be hard for North Korea to open up completely right now. But we believe that they have chosen the direction of opening and reforms," Mr. Hwang said.
Of course, Mr. Kim's Seoul administration is not above touting diplomatic success as a means of getting votes.
Formalization of ties between the United States and North Korea, between Japan and North Korea and even between South and North Korea are goals that are perceived as achievable in the atmosphere of relatively lowered tension.
Pyongyang opened diplomatic ties with Italy in January, a sign that the reclusive regime may want to come out of its shell.
The shaping of the new scene has been subtle and nuanced.
A Japanese delegation arrived in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang yesterday to begin historic talks on establishing diplomatic relations. Members of the Japanese media were also in the delegation.
North Korean roving ambassador Jong Thae-wha told chief Japanese negotiator Kojiro Takano that his country was interested in improving the two nations' often thorny relationship.
"We have a rough road ahead, but this is the path we have already started to walk once," Mr. Jong told Mr. Takano at a banquet sponsored by the North Korean Foreign Ministry.
"And therefore we should overcome obstacles and work toward building trust between the two countries."
South Korea's president, Mr. Kim, has sought to smooth rough edges with Japan, Russia and China, as well as North Korea.
"The stage seems set at long last for a positive new era in Northeast Asia," said a Western diplomat speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The North could revert to its old pattern of making promises and then breaking them, but the elements are in place for Pyongyang to gain some ground other than on the basis of employing tension," the diplomat said.
One reason for guarded optimism is Japan's willingness to fully pursue diplomatic overtures toward North Korea in cooperation with the United States and others.
Takeshi Kondo, managing director of the giant trading house Itochu, watches political risk factors as chairman of the Foreign Relations and National Security Issues Committee of Keizai Doykai, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives.
"There is room for optimism on the Korean Peninsula for the first time in a while, with certain question marks," he said. "The agreements and other moves among North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and China appear to have put a cap on North Korea's missile and nuclear development."
That may be, but even the most optimistic analysts warn that Korea remains Asia's military flash point and any moves toward conciliation must be viewed with caution.
A spate of U.S. intelligence reports disclosed in recent articles in The Washington Times indicates that North Korea has not stopped developing a long-range missile and that the isolated communist state continues to sell missile parts and related goods to rogue states such as Iran and Pakistan.

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