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. Years of crop failures have claimed the lives of as many as 2 million people in the North.
But some see it also as a response to the “sunshine policy” of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who eased more than four decades of hostility by offering to develop peace and economic ties without demanding that the North first change its system of government.
“There has been a change in the [North Korean] leadership with Kim Jong-il in charge,” said William J. Taylor, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I’m mildly or guardedly optimistic.”
Mr. Taylor said he was not yet convinced that next week’s summit will not be derailed by one of the recurrent border incidents that have plagued relations between the two Koreas.
But, he said, “If a summit takes place, it’s because of Kim Dae-jung. He started the sunshine policy and has been leading all the way.”
The North Koreans “will never totally trust anyone. But they are starting to trust Kim Dae-jung.”
Mr. Taylor credited President Clinton and his Korean envoy, William Perry, for endorsing the sunshine policy and helping Kim Dae-jung to move beyond the decades of mistrust.
In a recent speech in Berlin, the South Korean president affirmed that his policy was not to insist on territorial unification. That forbearance, along with a trickle of South Korean investment, may have helped Kim Jong-il decide to end the half-century of isolation from the West.
“We think any exposure the leadership has, and dialogue within the Korean Peninsula, has the effect of removing them from their isolated frame of mind,” said a State Department official.
While the United States was not informed in advance of Kim Jong-il’s visit to Beijing last month, the U.S. official said the Chinese have given American officials a detailed briefing.
Kim Jong-il was shown on Chinese television last week in animated discussion with top leaders in Beijing, where he visited a computer factory. He wore a dull Mao-style suit and said North Korea would keep its own path to socialism, but he appeared much more alert than in previous appearances.
Analysts believe he may have gone to China to secure support for a possible agreement with the South to end the state of war between them.
China, which sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight U.N. forces led by the United States during the Korean War, would likely be involved in any conversion of the 1953 armistice agreement into a peace treaty.
“In North Korea,” said Selig Harrison of the Century Foundation, “Kim Jong-il is on the side of the doves, and in China he sought some sort of support, the nature of which we are not aware.”
He said he believed the trip was aimed at getting Chinese backing for an effort to push the United States to carry out promises to end economic sanctions.
“Kim Jong-il is in charge in North Korea but he is not unchallenged like his father,” Mr. Harrison added.