US Sees a Possible Change of Heart in North Korea

The way Pentagon war planners see it, the end of the Soviet threat has made the Korean Peninsula and the Persian Gulf the most likely places where the United States could become embroiled in hostilities.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. But there may be new movement in the Clinton administration's 19-month-old initiative to bring peace to the peninsula.

After a two-month hiatus, US negotiators are to sit down today in New York with their South Korean, North Korean, and Chinese counterparts. The goal is to finalize an agenda for the first talks on a permanent peace treaty to replace the cease-fire signed in 1953.

The accord ended the fighting and established a demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, but did not technically end the Korean War. Instead, a tense standoff persists, with 37,500 US troops deployed in South Korea to guard the border.

The history of Korean peacemaking has been one of dashed hopes and false starts, and US officials caution against expectations of rapid progress in the "four party" talks expected to open in Geneva in mid-December.

"But," adds a senior US official, "it is an extremely significant thing that after 40-plus years ... we are now going to formally sit down with a political will to replace the armistice with something else."

Many independent experts harbor grave doubts that the Geneva talks will bring North Korea, the world's last Stalinist bastion, into the international mainstream and end the threat its 1 million-man army, chemical and biological weapons, and missiles pose to South Korea.

Instead, the experts worry the regime in Pyongyang, beset by an economic collapse, will try to ensure its own survival. Various possible means include linking concessions on a peace treaty to a US troop pullout, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington, and an economic bailout scheme.

The experts are also concerned that North Korea will demand substantial deliveries of food aid to ease widespread food shortages among its 23 million people, a result of several years of flooding and mismanagement.

The US rejects any link between food aid and the peace negotiations. But critics argue that the North Koreans have forced such a tie, obtaining more than $60 million in US aid without making any concessions, such as arms cuts or improved contacts with South Korea.

"The North Koreans are the world's masters at playing games and the only government that has a clear objective and that is the regime's survival," says Robert Manning, a former State Department Asia expert now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Today's meeting in New York would be the third held to prepare for the Geneva negotiations. The last session ended Sept. 19 without finalizing an agenda. The North Koreans insisted it include an American troop pullout and food aid, but both demands were rejected by the US.

US officials now believe those demands were not dealbreakers for Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may have only been buying time to complete his transition to power following the death three years ago of his father, Kim Il Sung, the communist country's founder.

That process was completed on Oct. 8, when Kim Jong Il became the general secretary of the ruling Workers Party, clearing the way to prepare for the Geneva negotiations, the officials say.

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