For the first time since imposing an embargo against North Korea in 1950, the United States eased trade restrictions Friday, announcing that it would allow direct telephone calls between the two nations and permit travelers to use credit cards there.
The announcement came as the Clinton administration, under heavy attack from Republicans for its nuclear agreement with North Korea, is moving carefully to improve relations with the North in the hope of building trust between the two nations and insuring that the communist nation continues to fulfill its promise to freeze its nuclear program.
“We consider this to be a very important diplomatic tool for insuring North Korea’s continuing cooperation and implementation” of the agreement signed in October in which the North vowed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear program.
As part of its relaxation of the embargo, the administration also announced that it would for the first time allow news organizations to open offices in North Korea, while also permitting North Korean journalists to open bureaus in the United States.
And in a small easing of its embargo on goods, the administration said it would permit imports of one the few North Korean products for which there is a large U.S. demand: magnesite, a mineral that steelmakers use to line their blast furnaces.
North Korea announced two weeks ago that it would end its embargo on U.S. goods and permit phone calls and financial transactions with the United States.
Administration officials also acknowledged that the relaxation of restrictions announced Friday was modest, but said that the prospect of further relaxation should serve as a powerful incentive for North Korea to abide by the nuclear agreement.
In that accord, the United States promised to head an international consortium that would provide North Korea with $4 billion worth of light-water atomic reactors. The spent fuel those reactors produce is far harder to transform into weapons-grade plutonium than the fuel produced by North Korea’s existing reactors.
Under the agreement, the United States and North Korea pledged to ease restrictions on telecommunications and financial transactions by Jan. 21.
The easing announced Friday was consistent with the approach the United States has used with other communist countries over the past decade: opening up trade and concentrating on increasing the flow of information and ideas.