North Korea - until recently derided as the unpredictable, well-armed problem child of international relations - is starting to make friends with the rest of the world.
The country has been on a diplomatic offensive for about a year, establishing relations with Italy in January and Australia this month. Once perceived as the gravest threat to security in Asia, this week North Korea is applying to join the 22-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a group that aims to promote Asia-Pacific peace and stability.
But the crowning glory of North Korea's new openness is a summit set for mid-June between its leader and South Korea's president, whose armies face each other across the world's most militarized border.
If this meeting comes to pass - the two sides concluded preparatory talks yesterday and are now arranging the summit site - it could mean an immediate reduction in tension on the Korean peninsula and the beginning of the end to the cold war in Northeast Asia.
"I think there is a hopeful sense everywhere that this summit will indeed take place," says State Department Counselor Wendy Sherman, a top US diplomat on North Korea.
The country is cozying up to other nations and its longtime enemy partly out of need and partly out of confidence, say North Korea-watchers in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea got by, and sometimes prospered, as a member of the Socialist club. But the evaporation of aid and trading partners gradually has forced the country to consider relations with countries it has long considered enemies, such as the US, Japan, and South Korea.
The country hasn't always chosen the friendliest tactics. International concern that North Korea was developing nuclear arms impelled the US in 1994 to agree to provide two reactors less capable of producing weapons-grade material than the North's own technology.
Since the US and North Korea signed the so-called Agreed Framework, South and North Korean workers have been building the new nuclear reactors as part of an international consortium. This project has proceeded fitfully and slowly, but the important thing is that it has proceeded at all.
Outside experts have surmised that North Korea's Stalinist, single-party dictatorship fears that foreigners will spread potentially disruptive ideas such as democracy or political pluralism. Inefficiencies in North Korea's state-run economy have caused food shortages that have killed hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people, and news of the capitalist plenty in South Korea might also trigger unmanageable discontent.
But the foreign nuclear workers have been sealed off from the rest of the country, as have South Korean and international visitors who have participated in a less than two-year-old tourism venture run by Hyundai, South Korea's largest conglomerate.
In both cases, the regime has been able to make money without disturbing the hermetic seal that shields ordinary North Koreans from the outside world.
This success may be one reason why the regime feels confident enough to pursue more elaborate foreign relations.
At the same time, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who took over when his father Kim Il Sung died in July 1995, appears to be solidifying his grip on power. Reliable information about North Korea's government is nonexistent, but many analysts argue that Mr. Kim now has the country's powerful military on his side.
Although he has rarely been abroad or met foreign visitors, Kim's sense of job security may also account for the international initiatives. And his counterpart in South Korea, President Kim Dae Jung, has been tempting him with offers of aid and assistance as part of a "sunshine policy" of engagement.
Yang Sung Chul, a member of South Korea's National Assembly who belongs to President Kim's party, says North Korea has long been suspicious of the South Koreans' motives. Now, however, "this mistrust is gradually dissipating, and this is a sign of new thinking, I hope, in North Korea's leadership."
A Japanese diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, says North Korea's new openness was evident at last fall's meetings of the UN General Assembly. "We could see they were starting this move of reaching out," he says. This week North Korea put on hold talks with Japan aimed at normalizing relations, perhaps because of a difficult agenda.
Signs of new thinking are also evident within the country. A Chinese scholar who frequently travels to North Korea says the regime "has ... begun loosening some of its economic and political controls."
The scholar, who asked not to be identified, says that farmers, workers, and even some military units have begun cultivating small private plots of land and "raising chickens, rabbits and [other] livestock to supplement their state rations."
He says this trend toward de facto privatization of the economy, although limited now, is likely to accelerate if the summit is successful.
But Kongdan Oh, a Korean scholar at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va., says that if the summit opens the North's doors to increased economic contacts, the free market will eventually defeat Marxist economics, which will trigger changes throughout North Korean society.
That is perhaps the greatest fear of North Korea's government in Pyongyang, which is why there is reason for skepticism as the summit approaches.
The symbolism of the leaders of North and South Korea meeting face to face may be momentous enough, but the agenda of their meeting will likely be focused on minor, achievable items, such as reuniting families with members on either side of the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries.
But no one is counting reunited families just yet. As National Assembly member Yang says, "In dealing with North Korea, it's done when it's done."
r Kevin Platt contributed to this report from Beijing.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society