North Korean Concessions Seen as a Bid for Survival

AS two deadlines loom for it to further reconcile with South Korea and to open its nuclear sites for inspection, North Korea put forth a few concessions this week, raising both anticipation and frustration among opponents.

Both Koreas offered similar proposals yesterday to allow reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war that divided the peninsula nation. Up to now, North Korea has resisted such visits to its closed society.

The offers were made at a meeting of the two nations' prime ministers in Seoul, the seventh such high-level talks held since 1990 and the first since the two sides signed a nonaggression and reconciliation accord in February.

The talks are due to end tomorrow, but observers expect little progress toward meeting a May 18 deadline for implementing key aspects of the accord, such as setting up a liaison office at the border hamlet of Panmunjom.

And on Monday, North Korea submitted a list of nuclear facilities to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 25 days ahead of a legal deadline. On April 9, North Korea approved an international accord for IAEA inspections, after putting it off for six years.

Such steps reflect a larger strategy by North Korea to reduce its isolation and obtain Western help for its faltering economy.

"It is for our own survival and to keep up with the world trend," Kim Dal Hyun, North Korean deputy premier for external economic cooperation, said in Pyongyang May 2.

As an added reason for submitting the list, North Korea faced a United States deadline for it to open up for the nuclear inspections by mid-June. US officials charge that the communist regime may develop a nuclear bomb within a few months or years, a charge North Korea denies. The US also fears that North Korea is playing for time.

In its list of inspection sites, North Korea apparently admitted that a small amount of plutonium - the radioactive material needed for a nuclear bomb - is in a research plant in Yongbyon, the nuclear complex about 60 miles north of the capital.

"We have nothing to hide from any people, including you, and our intention is to allow inspection of all facilities we have," said Song Rak Un, head of US affairs at the North Korea Foreign Ministry, last week. He denied a US charge that North Korea was building a nuclear-reprocessing plant that would produce plutonium.

He said the timing of the inspections would depend on talks with IAEA but that they would begin "as soon as possible." IAEA director Hans Blix may visit the North in the next two weeks for an initial tour of the sites before full inspections in mid-June, North Korean officials said.

In addition to IAEA inspections, South Korea is eager to implement a section of the February accord that calls for the two sides to agree to mutual inspection of suspected nuclear sites "around" May 18.

"The nuclear issue ... is an urgent and grave question on which hinges not only our survival as a people but also the peace and stability of Asia at large," said South Korean Prime Minister Chung Won Shik at this week's talks.

"We should no longer remain stuck in a cold-war rut," he added. But 25 working-level meetings have failed to make much headway on the issue of cross-inspections. The sides blame each other for putting up obstacles.

Still, a North Korean spokesman said the two nations could complete talks on the issue by the end of May. The February accord calls for inspections to start within 20 days after guidelines are completed.

A private US academic group that visited North Korea last week issued a statement Tuesday saying Pyongyang promised that IAEA inspectors could visit any site, even those not on the submitted list. Seoul analysts say North Korea may use IAEA inspections to delay mutual inspections between the new nations.

On the family exchanges, the two sides agreed in principle but admitted "different" ideas on how to do it. They both proposed the exchanges take place in August, the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.

South Korea suggested that an exchange of 300 people from each country, made up of separated families, politicians, business executives, artists, athletes, and academics. North Korea offered groups of 100 elderly people and 70 artists.

But the North also called for "pan-national" rally on Aug. 15, liberation day, which South Korea's Mr. Chung said would be a "political show."

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