By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The isolated communist state began the year by launching missiles and testing a nuclear bomb, but this month it has released two U.S. journalists, freed a South Korean worker and on Monday agreed to resume reunions of families divided by the North-South border. It also said it will restart a cross-border tourism business.
Leader Kim Jong Il, 67, who had a stroke a year ago and whose fitness to run the country has been widely questioned, has chosen to grant highly publicized audiences with two important outsiders.
He met for more than three hours this month with former president Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang to retrieve the American journalists.
On Sunday, in a meeting that the South Korean government described as "positive," Kim held talks with the chairman of Hyundai Group, the South Korean conglomerate that is the largest investor in the North.
The official Korean Central News Agency said that the conversation with Hyun Jung-eun was "cordial" and that Kim "complied with all her requests."
"My luncheon meeting with Chairman Kim proceeded in a friendly atmosphere," Hyun said Monday upon returning to Seoul after a week in North Korea. "We exchanged views on the resumption of the joint tourism project . . . and other pending issues."
On Thursday, North Korea released a Hyundai employee whom it had detained in the spring on vague charges of political misbehavior.
The reasons behind North Korea's apparent softening in strategy are known only to Kim and his inner circle. But analysts in South Korea have speculated that much of North Korea's saber rattling this year was for internal consumption, as Kim began to prepare the country for a succession process that may hand power to his third son, Kim Jong Un, who is just 26.
"North Korea has put all its cards on the table and now it wants some kind of negotiations with the United States," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
The Obama administration has said that it is willing to have bilateral discussions with North Korea, but that it also wants Pyongyang to return to six-party talks focused on ridding the North of nuclear weapons.
But in another potentially conciliatory development, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Monday that Wu Dawei, China's senior nuclear envoy, was planning to go to North Korea to try to restart the six-party talks.
The North, meanwhile, is being squeezed by U.N. economic sanctions and by intense U.S. efforts to seal off the country from the world's banking system. The sanctions were toughened in the spring in reaction to the North's nuclear test.
Pyongyang announced Monday that it would relax rules on North-South border traffic and "energize" its joint industrial complex at Kaesong, where more than 100 South Korean companies employ about 40,000 North Korean workers.
The future of the complex, which injects desperately needed hard currency into the moribund North Korean economy, has been in jeopardy since early this year, when the North demanded a huge increase in rent and salaries.
A possible reason for North Korea's new flexibility in relations with South Korea is lack of food.
North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages, and U.N. food agencies have said that about 37 percent of the country's 23.5 million people will need aid this year.
Food-supply problems may have increased in recent weeks, as North Korean state television has reported that flooding damaged crops.
Earlier this year, the North severely restricted the ability of U.N. agencies to distribute food inside the country.