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.
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.
South Korean analysts see support for this view in the pattern of talks during the past year. The parliamentary talks appeared to be making progress toward an agreement on a large-scale meeting of legislators in Pyongyang when the North Koreans raised the demand for end to the annual joint US-South Korean Team Spirit military exercise. North Korea has pursued a consistent policy of placing military and political issues at the top of its agenda.
``Rational working solutions to the problems of North-South relations were never on their minds,'' says Kim Chang Soon, head of the Institute of North Korea Studies. The North, he says, ``doesn't want to treat Roh Tae Woo as an equal, as a negotiating partner who has enough support to deal equally with North Korea.''
Analysts also say that Chinese and Soviet pressure on North Korea to moderate its Stalinist character has had a limited impact, particularly after the crackdown in China that Pyongyang has supported. Because of the popular uprising in China, ``the North Koreans recognize if they open up their society, it will create big problems for them,'' says Kwon Moon-Sool, director of the government's Research Institute on National Security Affairs.
Government-linked analysts also express concerns about the Soviet's role. While welcoming the improvement of relations with Moscow, they also point to the continued Soviet supply of modern weapons to North Korea. The Soviet's arrangement of the meeting between Kim Young Sam and Ho Dam raises a ``delicate issue,'' says analyst Kim. ``It gives the impression that Moscow wants a peace of the action in North-South relations.'' The objective of that meeting for Pyongyang, he says, was to gain the propaganda coup of inducing Kim Young Sam to visit the North.
Assemblyman Chung, who accompanied Mr. Kim during his June 2-10 visit to the Soviet Union, says Soviet officials clearly expressed their support for stability and opposition to any rapid or forceful attempt to reunify the peninsula. The North Koreans sought a Kim Young Sam visit to Pyongyang, he says, but the talks with Ho Dam mainly consisted of a low-key dialogue on key issues, including the presence of US forces in South Korea.
Mr. Kim defended the US troop role and refused to go to the North until a summit meeting between Kim Il Sung and Roh takes place. ``They found out the opposition parties are not much different from the government viewpoint as far as unification is concerned,'' Mr. Chung says. While most South Koreans agree with the government's insistence that it lead the North-South dialogue, there is criticism that it has put the South in a defensive posture.
The government has been inconsistent in its policy to allow wider contacts with the North, critics say. It has allowed freer circulation of information, including airing of North Korean television programs and films, while cracking down on what it views as ``subversive'' activity by pro-North radicals.
``The government is caught between the need for an open society and the realities of the way North Korea operates,'' says a Western diplomat who follows North Korean affairs. The diplomat supports the government's contention that there has been no retreat from a desire for dialogue. But, he adds, ``They're trying to clarify what the ground rules are.''