After half a summer of trying, getting North Korea to say "no" to the test of a new long-range missile was followed Friday by the United States' "yes" to the lifting of sanctions against the insular country.
While President Clinton's decision opened doors that have been closed since the Korean War - clearing the way for trade, investment, and travel - Americans aren't expected to be rushing to North Korea to do business.
But it may spur the East Asian region to follow up with steps of its own. Since North Korea launched a three-stage rocket over Japan in August 1998, the US and North Korea's neighbors have been taking seriously the Marxist regime's ability to develop a missile that could reach parts of the US.
The US's move was interpreted here as heralding better relations and less tension in general. "It's going to be a stepping stone to the improvement and normalization of diplomatic relations with neighboring countries," says Koh Il Dong at the Korea Development Institute, a think tank in Seoul.
South Korea welcomed the easing of sanctions, saying it hoped North Korea will respond favorably, start down a road of peaceful coexistence, and help end the cold war in Korea. South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung has held fast to his "sunshine" policy of attempting engagement with the North. Even during a June firefight on the West Sea between the two Koreas, the Hyundai Group's much heralded cruises continued to deliver tourists to North Korea.
Japan may follow
Having been under the path of last summer's missile, Japan has been particularly wary of the North. However, if North Korea keeps its promise, Japan will have "room to conduct its own dialogue," says a Western diplomat here. Japan wielded a big stick last month when it threatened to cut off remittances from residents of Japan to their families in North Korea.
But Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said Saturday that Japan itself may lift sanctions, which includes food aid, if North Korea can keep its pledge. North Korea may be particularly interested in restarting talks to normalize relations with Japan - and getting reparations for Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea.
After his four-day visit to Pyongyang last weekend, David Husband says North Koreans "seemed very pleased" with the Berlin agreement. Mr. Husband is acting director in Beijing of the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Tumen River Area project, an effort that brings together six countries to foster trade and development.
Tensions have made it difficult to conduct business or give North Korea assistance to rebuild its economy. Now the donor community may feel more free to come forward with help to boost North Korea's agriculture and energy sectors. Two to 3 million people may have starved to death in an ongoing famine, and energy production is at half its capacity. The UNDP hopes for more Japanese and Hong Kong investor interest in North Korea. If the North had launched another missile, "all that would have stopped," says Husband.
Lack of infrastructure has been a big disincentive to developing the Rajin-Sonbong trade zone. The UNDP is currently facilitating a road project linking northeastern China with North Korean and Russian ports. North Korea needs $120 million to complete its section. "If we're able to do that it would really transform the area," says Husband.
America's ultimate goal is to normalize relations in exchange for an end to both missile and nuclear bomb programs in North Korea. (A 1994 deal between North Korea and the US intended to freeze North Korea's nuclear program, in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors and fuel oil, did not apply to missile development.) But some analysts say the North is unlikely to sacrifice something it sees as so vital to its national interest.
William Perry, former secretary of Defense, has worked for the better part of a year as special envoy for North Korea. This spring, he offered North Korea a comprehensive package of benefits. The Berlin agreement is seen as a first step in the spirit of that initiative.
Critics say North Korea can always threaten to test missiles again in exchange for more concessions, and that the US has given up a big bargaining chip. Others counter that lifting sanctions could open North Korea somewhat, and actually be in America's interest. But there is no guarantee relations will improve.
"The 1994 Geneva Accord (which froze North Korea's nuclear program) clearly mentions improved relations, something that, five years later, has yet to materialize," read an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo, a Seoul daily.
Mr. Perry acknowledged that negotiations have been "frustrating and difficult" at times. But he hailed the Berlin agreement as "a small first step."
STATUS OF US-NORTH KOREA SANCTIONS Restrictions against North Korea will be eased on:
*Sales of most US consumer goods and financial services to North Korea.
*US investment in agriculture, mining, petroleum, timber, transportation, roadbuilding, travel, and tourism.
*Direct financial help from US citizens to relatives or other individual North Koreans.
*US transport of ordinary cargo to and from North Korea by ship and plane.
*Commercial flights between the US and North Korea.
Restrictions remain on:
*Sales of US weapons and missile-related technology.
*Unlicensed export of "dual-use" goods or technology - items that could have military uses - regulated by the Commerce Department.
*US foreign aid, including help from the Peace Corps and the Export-Import Bank Act.
*US support for other international loans to North Korea.
*Unauthorized financial transactions between US individuals and the North Korean government.
Source: Associated Press
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society