North Korea's apology for its submarine incursion into South Korea and its consent to preliminary talks on formal peace negotiations have dramatically eased tensions on the Korean peninsula.
But bringing the most enduring cold-war-era conflict to closure will remain as difficult a goal as ever for the US, which maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea as part of a commitment to defend it against the North. Managing the Korean rivalry will be one of the most difficult foreign-policy challenges facing the second Clinton administration.
North Korea is convulsed by dire food shortages and a failing economy that make the behavior of the world's last Stalinist regime unpredictable. US intelligence officials warn that Pyongyang's leadership could within the next three years either invade the South, collapse internally, or seek reunification.
While many experts welcome as significant North Korea's apparent moves toward serious dialogue, some harbor grave misgivings about its motives and say it could backtrack. They worry that Pyongyang will win a resumption of US goodwill and international food aid, which was frozen after the submarine incursion, without making any political concessions, especially ending its refusal to hold direct talks with Seoul.
"The North Koreans clearly want all of the help they can get from the international community, with the US in the lead, but there is no indication they will enter direct talks with the South Koreans," warns William Taylor of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They will go back to brinkmanship sooner or later."
The picture has become more tangled with the eruption last week of South Korea's biggest-ever labor strikes. There are forecasts that the economic slowdown underlying the strikes could grow. With his party facing a presidential election next year, South Korean President Kim Young Sam could turn up his anti-Pyongyang rhetoric in a tension-renewing tactic aimed at diverting voters' attention from their woes.
A big breakthrough
Clinton administration officials acknowledge that progress toward peace is not guaranteed. But they insist that the prospects have been brightened by North Korea's apology and its unprecedented agreement to attend a "briefing" by American and South Korean diplomats on a proposal for formal negotiations on a settlement to the 1950-1953 Korean War.
"It's very important because it means for the first time the North will sit down with the South ... to talk about the future of the peninsula," says Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord. "We are ending the year on a very positive note."
The apology, which was issued Sunday, and Pyongyang's agreement to the briefing on the "four-way" talks were negotiated between US and North Korean diplomats in 11 meetings at the United Nations. US officials say while Seoul was not directly involved, it was closely consulted.
The goal of the administration's policy is to avoid embroiling the US in another conflict on the peninsula. It seeks to achieve that end by drawing North Korea out of decades of totalitarian rule and penurious isolation and onto a path toward reform, international cooperation, and peaceful reintegration with the South.
But the gradual process was brought to an abrupt halt by the Sept. 18 incursion of the North Korean spy submarine into South Korean waters. Twenty-four intruders were killed or found dead and one was captured in a massive search launched after the vessel was discovered aground.
The incident sent already high tensions soaring as North Korea vowed to avenge its dead. The frictions jeopardized the centerpiece of the US diplomatic effort: the proposal for direct peace talks between Seoul and Pyongyang mediated by the US and China. The talks would aim to hammer out a formal settlement to the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with only a cease-fire.
The proposal was unveiled in April by President Clinton and Mr. Kim. While North Korea did not respond, it did not reject the idea.
The submarine incident also froze another major US initiative: the construction of two nuclear power plants in North Korea by a US-South Korean-Japanese consortium - the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). In return for the $6 billion project and shipments of fuel oil for conventional generators, Pyongyang agreed in October 1994 to halt its nuclear-weapons development program.
Jason Shaplen, a KEDO policy adviser, says that as a result of the North Korean apology, he hopes work can resume "in the next several weeks."
North Korea's new overtures are also expected to lead to a resumption of other US-North Korean initiatives stalled by the submarine incident. They include a joint effort with the US to locate the remains of American soldiers missing in the Korean War, talks on economic issues, and curbing Pyongyang's arms sales to states like Iran.
What North Korea gets
In addition, the US is expected to grant a license to Minnesota-based Cargill Inc., the world's largest grain-trading company, to supply 500,000 tons of grain to North Korea. Pyongyang would have to pay for the grain through the sale to a third party of an unspecified commodity.
But US officials say there has been no decision to resume US shipments of humanitarian aid that Pyongyang desperately needs to feed its hungry people.
The administration appears to be reserving the resumption of aid as a carrot for continued North Korean cooperation.
Some analysts remain wary that in working for better ties with Pyongyang, the Clinton administration will exacerbate frictions with Seoul, where there are concerns it is being marginalized by direct US dealings with the North.
But administration officials contend the cornerstone of US policy remains direct peace negotiations between the two Koreas. They insist that Washington and Seoul are in agreement on the US approach.