N. Korea Shows Signs of Opening Up, After Decades of Self-Imposed Isolation

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 9, 2007

SEOUL -- Choi Won-ho has made six trips to North Korea in the past two years, struggling each time to convince the reclusive government there that the time was ripe for a chicken franchise.

"I told those guys that Kentucky Fried Chicken would come sooner or later," said Choi, president of a company that has franchised 70 chicken restaurants in South Korea. "I told them it would be better to have an indigenous Korean brand, with takeout delivery."

To Choi's astonishment, his pitch is now falling on receptive ears in Pyongyang. This month, he plans to open the first foreign-run restaurant in the North Korean capital in the history of the Stalinist dictatorship.

North Korea is opening up to much more than fast-food chicken.

A team of U.S. experts is in North Korea this week to start disabling three key facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear site -- just 13 months after the government of Kim Jong Il stunned the world by exploding a nuclear device. The disabling process was off to "a good start," a State Department official said Tuesday.

And as part of an extraordinary spurt of diplomacy, senior officials from Pyongyang have been touring Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Russia in recent months. In the same vein, relations with five countries have been initiated or renewed since summer.

Officials from the New York Philharmonic were welcomed this fall to Pyongyang, where they inquired about holding a concert next year, and a North Korean taekwondo team made its first visit to the United States in September. Last week, the U.S. Navy helped out a North Korean cargo ship that had been attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

In the wake of a summit last month with South Korea, the North is also opening up to a new kind of tourism. It will allow nonstop flights from Seoul to a mountain resort called Mount Baekdu.

The decision -- ballyhooed this week on the front page of a state-controlled North Korean newspaper -- would for the first time in 62 years give travelers a direct connection from South Korea to the resort without a detour through China.

All this seems to add up to something of significance in the long effort to persuade North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons and emerge from decades of self-imposed isolation, according to Christopher R. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs and the principal U.S. negotiator in six-nation nuclear talks.

"In the past, North Korea often spoke of their isolation as a great benefit for their country," Hill told reporters in Tokyo last weekend. "I think they've understood it now as something that is actually harming them, and that the best-case scenario for what they're doing is to believe that perhaps it is part of an overall effort to open up."

Hill said that not everyone in North Korea agrees that opening up is a good idea and that whatever happens is "going to be a slow process." In Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo told reporters that the North is continuing to buy weapons. "We cannot conclude that the threat from North Korea has been reduced," Kim said.

But Hill sounded genuinely optimistic about the North's recent gestures.

He said officials in China, which shares a border with North Korea and is its most important ally, have also noticed signs of economic reform in the North. "The Chinese, who probably know the DPRK best, believe that there is an effort on the part of the DPRK to open up," Hill said, using the initials of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

North Korea's recent high-level contact with Vietnam, another communist state that has opened its economy, is "very interesting," Hill said. North Korea's premier, Kim Yong Il, who is in charge of economic policy, traveled last week to the Southeast Asian country, where he visited a port, a coal mine and an industrial zone.

A breakthrough in the six-party talks occurred last month, when Pyongyang agreed to disable its nuclear-processing facilities and disclose all of its nuclear programs in exchange for aid, trade and a U.S. agreement to move toward removing the country from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The cause of that breakthrough, in the view of many Western and Korean analysts, was a burst of intense and pragmatic U.S. diplomacy after North Korea's nuclear detonation last year.

Since Hill's subsequent outreach to his diplomatic counterparts in North Korea, Kim Jong Il has come to believe that he can negotiate with the Bush administration, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

"The Bush administration is not going to be around for long, and North Korea is worried about losing momentum," Koh said. The economy of the North desperately needs the outside investment that would come if the United States removes the terrorist listing, he noted.

If that designation is still in place when Bush leaves office in January 2009, officials in North Korea fear they will have to start all over with a new administration, costing them years, Koh said. "The North cannot wait that long," he said. "The economy there is in too much trouble. The reason you see noticeable change in the North now is that they have an incentive to act."

Even with that incentive, any opening up of North Korea is certain to be slow and quirky.

A case in point is Choi and his push north with fast-food chicken.

Choi received an e-mail this week from his joint-venture partners in Pyongyang demanding changes in the words and the font used in brochures for the chicken restaurant. The partners are from a government-owned company.

The e-mail said the brochures could not include any descriptions of chicken dishes derived from English. "Chicken fry-ee-doo," a term widely used in South Korea, was unacceptable and must be changed to more authentic Korean language, the e-mail said.

The partners from Pyongyang also insisted that the chicken brochures be printed in the official North Korean national font.

Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.

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