N. Korea: Can a cold-war holdout finally reach out?

A ruined economy leads Stalinist regime to expand relations.

At first, the word "rational" doesn't seem to apply to North Korea's pattern of behavior on the world stage.

After 30-odd years of spending millions on missile and nuclear weapons programs, North Korea's nonmilitary economy has virtually collapsed. Famine has wracked its people since 1995. Propaganda slams South Korea, the country most willing to aid its recovery.

But while many analysts are quick to point out there is method in the Stalinist regime's apparent madness, they also wonder how long the method can last.

The isolated dictatorship knows any substantial economic opening could awaken its people to the harsh conditions under which they live. "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il's regime could fall the way much of communist Eastern Europe did in 1989.

By using tensions to keep opponents off balance, North Korea has traditionally gained much but given up little in return. In its latest test of international relations, North Korea has been engaged in a week-old standoff in the Yellow Sea over fishing rights with South Korea. Except for ramming some North Korean boats on Friday, South Korea has reacted with calm to the infiltration. Yesterday, the north agreed to UN mediation in the dispute.

Last month, the United States virtually traded 400,000 tons of food for access to a suspected underground nuclear weapons complex that proved to be an empty tunnel. (The US denies any quid pro quo.) "North Korea is really smart ... very rational," says Ahn Young Sup, a political science professor at Myungji University near Seoul.

Such treatment at the hands of an impoverished dictatorship is frustrating for a superpower. US Congressional Republicans have accused the Clinton administration of appeasement for years. So eight months ago, former secretary of Defense William Perry began a review of American policy toward North Korea in the hope of finding better ways to ease tensions and coax the regime into the international community. His final recommendations to President Clinton have not been released.

In offering to ease sanctions and increase economic cooperation, Mr. Perry's recommendations are certain to complement South Korea's "sunshine" engagement policy. Returning from a trip to Pyongyang, the northern capital, last month, Perry said he had offered "the possibility of a major expansion in [US-North Korea] relations and cooperation" as long as "US and allied concerns about missile and nuclear programs are addressed." The North has yet to respond, but is unlikely to relinquish key assets like missile and nuclear programs for an economic openness that could threaten its government's existence.

NEVERTHELESS, how long its brutal survivalist calculus can work is a question pondered by North watchers.

There are signs that North Korea's regime is feeling the acute pressure of a failed economy enough to risk the scorching sunshine of venturing out into the world in search of economic gain. High-level talks with China have just concluded, and South Korean representatives are still scheduled for a meeting next week to offer fertilizer in exchange for North Korea's cooperation in reuniting families separated since the 1950-53 war.

Some analysts say North Korea is going through a genuine transition. A handful of North Korean officials have even been taking instruction in international law and economics this year under the sponsorship of the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. North Korea is continuously moving toward "gradual integration into the international community on their terms," says Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department official. But "the pace is going to be slow. North Koreans are not going to collapse, or surrender, or turn capitalist. I think that's the unrealistic expectation out there. Everybody is harking back to 1989 when the iron curtain crumbled."

Some doubt even that. "They want the money! This is not reform. This is not opening," declares another analyst, who requested anonymity. He sees only "flimsy" evidence for an opening, noting several major North-South agreements that were never implemented. Inter-Korean economic cooperation has increased dramatically recently, but is nowhere near a "critical mass" to spell recovery or real opening, says a Western observer.

As the Northern populace suffers, outsiders have little sympathy for their leaders.

"Essentially it's a very vicious regime that's trying to preserve itself rather than risk itself for the sake of its people," says the Western observer.

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