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N. Korea Diplomats Get Gregarious

March 14, 2000

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ After years of virtual hibernation, North Korean diplomats are turning gregarious. They just visited Canada for the first time, they’re talking to counterparts in New York and they’re preparing to play host to envoys from Britain.

These days, rival South Korea is also seeking the world’s ear: its foreign minister, Lee Joung-binn, was in Washington on Monday for talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Even though the two Koreas remain locked in an armed standoff, their parallel diplomatic campaigns ally them in the same pursuit: Communist North Korea appears eager to engage the world it has simultaneously spurned and relied on for decades, and Seoul is anxious to help.

A striking symbol of Pyongyang’s policy shift could come in April if a visit by a top North Korean official to Washington goes ahead as planned.

Last week, U.S. and North Korean envoys opened talks in New York to discuss the trip. One possible candidate to lead the delegation is Kang Sok Ju, North Korea’s first deputy foreign minister.

North Korea could be acting out of desperation as much as a desire for reconciliation if it dispatches Kang to a nation it has long regarded as the crucible of imperialist evil.

Years of famine brought on by drought, floods and economic mismanagement forced the totalitarian state to appeal for food donations from international donors, including the United States. Aid workers say the situation remains precarious.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and human rights record would likely be on the agenda in Washington. Also, North Korea wants the United States to remove it from a U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorist activities.

Pyongyang was put on the list because of involvement in the midair bombing of a South Korean airliner near Burma, now Myanmar, in 1987. All 115 people on board the Korean Air plane died.

The Washington meeting would be a vindication of the so-called ``sunshine″ policy of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who has tried to woo the recalcitrant North with sports, business and cultural contacts.

Kim is under domestic pressure to show results from his gradualist policy, which critics say has failed to win concessions and has instead funded North Korea’s military machine. Opposition leaders have seized on the issue ahead of parliamentary elections on April 13.

North Korea also has a home audience to please. While its diplomats talk behind closed doors to American negotiators, its official media pumps out diatribes denigrating the United States as ``brigandish,″ ``impudent,″ ``sinister″ and ``criminal.″

Pyongyang still refuses to talk, at least publicly, to the government in Seoul, which it rejects as illegitimate. In a speech last week in Berlin, South Korea’s Kim delivered another appeal for direct talks and offered more economic help to the North.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the ``the increasingly positive signs″ on the divided Korean peninsula, and urged North and South to quickly open dialogue, spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday. Annan stands ready to help efforts to reduce tensions and promote mutual confidence, if asked to take a role, he said.

Although the strength of U.S.-South Korean ties is evident in the 37,000 American soldiers stationed on the Korean peninsula, there is concern that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge in the alliance by talking only to the United States.

``We hope that they don’t have that illusion of any possibility of isolating our country,″ said S.J. Yoon, a presidential spokesman in Seoul.

Stripped of allies by the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, North Korea is pursuing ties. Normalization talks with Japan, which has decided to resume food aid to the North, are expected to start next month.

Four Foreign Ministry officials visited Canada earlier this month, and several British diplomats are expected to visit Pyongyang in April or May. Canada and Britain have donated aid to North Korea but neither has immediate plans to establish official diplomatic ties.

North Korea is also stepping up overtures to its chief ally, China, perhaps to ease any concern in Beijing about its new contacts with the West. In a highly unusual move, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang a week ago.

China’s decision in 1992 to formally recognize South Korea, now a major trading partner, strained relations with the North. But Beijing’s own concerns about U.S. and Japanese sway in the region may have encouraged it to improve ties with Pyongyang in the past year.

Update hourly