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North Korea Turns On the Charm

As part of its PR war against South Korea, Pyongyang hosts a rare influx of foreign visitors. THE KOREAN COLD WAR

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 1989


THIS week the hermetic communist nation of North Korea opens its doors to an unprecedented extent. North Korea is hosting the World Youth Festival, an international political, cultural, and sports event expected to bring about 25,000 foreigners to the capital of Pyongyang. Most visitors will come from sympathetic communist and third world nations, but will include many from the West, as well as a limited number of Western journalists.

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This unusual access is a product of North Korea's ongoing competition with its bitter foe in the divided peninsula, South Korea. During the past year the two Koreas have engaged in a fitful dialogue in which both sides have professed their desire for serious negotiations aimed toward unification.

But little real progress has been made in the cold war which has prevailed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean war in 1953.

The week-long festival is Pyongyang's answer to Seoul's hosting of the Olympic Games last summer. The North suffered a major setback when its communist allies refused to follow its call to boycott the Games.

North Korea also seeks to bolster its image with an array of initiatives for dialogue with the South, including inviting student organizations to attend the conference. It has agreed to resume inter-parliamentary talks July 11 with South Korea and to hold separate discussions on exchange visits of families divided by the Korean war.

Last month senior North Korean leader Ho Dam traveled to Moscow to meet with South Korean opposition leader Kim Young Sam, the first top South Korean political figure to visit the Soviet Union. According to Chung Jey-moon, the national assemblyman who made the initial contact with the North Koreans in Moscow, the meeting was arranged through the offices of the Soviets. Relations between South Korea and the Soviet Union, particularly economic ties, have developed rapidly since last year.

Some South Korean analysts say a successful festival will encourage the North to pursue a more flexible policy. According to this view, North Korea cannot afford to continue its long-standing policy of isolation. The process of reform in the communist world and the need to solve its severe economic problems are forcing more openness.

But for the most part, Pyongyang's moves have been met with skepticism and scorn here in Seoul. The North Korean gestures amount to nothing but ``cosmetic changes,'' President Roh Tae Woo told foreign reporters last week. The show of flexibility, South Korean officials say, will disappear once the Pyongyang festival ends.

North Korea's initiatives are intended to encourage ``leftist agitation inside South Korea,'' President Roh charged, aiming at ``overthrowing the rightful government.''

South Korea has blocked radical students from attending the Pyongyang festival, which Seoul says is a left-wing political affair. Mr. Roh harshly condemned Pyongyang's efforts to cultivate dissidents, students, and opposition politicians as ``black market operations'' intended to avoid ``constructive and open dialogue'' with the government.

Last week the government arrested an opposition member of the National Assembly, a well-known dissident figure, for secretly visiting North Korea last year and holding talks with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.