Driven by desperation, North Korea is gradually opening up to the United States in ways that many U.S. analysts believe offer new hope for avoiding war at one of the last remaining flash points of the Cold War.
North Korea still complains of American “imperialist hostility,” boasts of its preparedness for a new Korean War and claims the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are part of a conspiracy to stifle the North’s socialist aspirations.
Rhetoric aside, the Communist regime is reaching out to the United States in ways that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. A Pentagon team, for example, is now in North Korea scouring its hills for remains of U.S. servicemen unaccounted for from the 1950-53 war between the North and South.
“The regime is changing a lot of its policies,” said Bruce Cumings, a history professor at Northwestern University and author of several books on North Korea. Among the most noticeable change is its approach to the United States.
On Aug. 5, North Korean officials are to sit down for the first time with U.S., Chinese and South Korean officials to discuss four-party negotiations on a North-South peace accord. Few expect an early breakthrough. The immediate goal is to just get negotiations going after decades of a hostile North-South standoff.
“You’re not going to have sudden progress toward a peace treaty,” predicts Selig Harrison, a Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But he and other American analysts see a more promising opportunity to ease tensions and lessen the chance of a new Korean war breaking out.
Cooperation has evolved over the past three years and accelerated in recent months, in large part due to a deadly food shortage in North Korea and an apparent decision by the reclusive communist leadership to pin its hopes for survival on an economic revival that can be accomplished only with U.S. involvement.
“The North Koreans want to engage the United States economically,” said Harrison. “They want the U.S. to relax its economic sanctions - that’s what they’re all about.”
The Clinton administration has given $52 million in food aid to North Korea this year, but it has not dropped its trade ban or established diplomatic ties.
Years of economic decay and recent agricultural failures have combined with the costs of diplomatic and political isolation to drive North Korea to desperation. Some fear this could lead the North’s leaders to start a war with the South, but lately the North Koreans seem headed in a different direction.