Call it nice-guy diplomacy.
For nearly two years, South Korea has pursued a kinder, gentler policy toward its irascible, isolated, and well-armed neighbor, North Korea. The US adopted a similar strategy this fall. And just this week, Japan has fallen into step.
Stalinist North Korea does seem to be softening up a bit, giving analysts and diplomats the hope that the bad boy of Northeast Asia may soon become less of a threat. Burdened with a decrepit state-run economy, North Korea needs food and other assistance from the outside world.
But questions linger. "How much are they capable of giving?" says one US official, musing over the North Koreans' willingness to abandon its peace-for-food ploys and deal openly with other countries. "Or are they simply engaged in an extortion game?"
While some critics deride the nice-guy approach as the appeasement of a brutal and illegitimate regime, the governments of Japan, South Korea, and the US insist that engaging the North Koreans is the right way to go. "I think it's working," says one Japanese Foreign Ministry official, who, like his American counterpart, declined to be identified.
The Japanese have an immediate reason to be upbeat about talking to North Korea. Negotiators from the Japanese and North Korean Red Cross societies agreed on Dec. 21 to address humanitarian issues of concern to the two countries, including steps toward a resumption of food aid from Japan. That allowed diplomats to begin preparatory talks aimed at normalizing relations, a state of affairs that has never existed between Japan and North Korea.
This bilateral progress is only the latest box of chocolates in the wooing of North Korea. On Dec. 15, an international consortium signed a $4.6-billion deal to build two new nuclear reactors for the country. The US lifted economic sanctions in September. And South Korea is pursuing President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" - which has allowed South Korean companies to invest in North Korea and encouraged cultural exchanges.
The quid pro quo from North Korea is generally a promise to back away from some belligerent activity. The nuclear reactors, for instance, are part of a 1994 deal in which North Korea agreed to freeze operations at a nuclear facility capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. (The new reactors will be less capable of generating such material.)
The lifting of US sanctions came in response to a North Korean promise not to test-fire another missile. In August 1998, North Korea launched a long-range Taepodong rocket over the northern Pacific, frightening the Japanese, who are easily within the missile's range, and catching the attention of the US. Experts say that with further development, North Korean missiles could hit US territory.
BUT diplomats argue that North Korea is too dangerous and too unpredictable to ignore or treat harshly. William Perry, a former US secretary of Defense who is now President Clinton's policy coordinator on North Korea, has advocated a two-path strategy.
It offers North Korea the chance to normalize relations with the US and opportunities for trade and economic assistance in exchange for "complete and verifiable assurances" that the country does not have a nuclear- weapons program and that it will stop developing and exporting long-range missiles.
Aside from the lifting of sanctions, which has not had much practical impact, the two countries are still talking about how to proceed along this road. The second path is what happens if North Korea doesn't go along: unspecified "other steps" by the US and its allies "to assure their security and contain the threat."
In the midst of all this diplomacy, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in North Korea. Once reliant on aid from fellow socialist states, the North Korean economy has faltered badly in the post-cold-war era. In recent years chronic food shortages exacerbated by bad weather have killed at least 220,000 people, according to North Korean official statistics, and maybe as many as 3.5 million - the estimate of a private South Korean relief organization.
This quiet famine - North Korea virtually bans foreign journalists - is another factor that has pushed governments to deal with the North Korean regime. "From a humanitarian point of view," says Peter Smerdon, a UN World Food Program official in Beijing, "any strategy that will lessen tensions will help the people of North Korea."
Analysts in China, North Korea's only ally of any significance, say South Korea's sunshine policy and what is now sometimes called the "Perry process" are having an effect. "Some people in North Korea are already starting to change their perception of the US and South Korea as 'eternal enemies,' " says Han Zenshe, a North Korea expert at the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
Perry's policy review has brought the US, South Korea, and Japan into closer coordination. "This time North Korea is not dealing with Japan alone," says the Japanese diplomat, explaining the apparent progress toward better bilateral relations with North Korea.
But no one is detecting any major changes in North Korea's outlook. There have been minor improvements, such as the cessation of missile testing, "But that's it," says Hideshi Takesada, a researcher on North Korea at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. "There is no substantial achievement."
He says the Perry strategy is too focused on US concerns, such as long-range missile development, and does not adequately address the chemical and biological weapons the North may have, the most pressing issues for South Korea and Japan, he says.
Pyon Jin Il, Tokyo-based publisher of the Korea Report newsletter, says North Korea still has not been separated from the weapons it has developed: "North Korea still grasps the key."
*Kevin Platt contributed to this report from Beijing.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society