What's Gotten Into N. Korea?

Kim Nam-sik, a South Korean diplomat, says the North expressed regret for a water discharge that killed six.
Kim Nam-sik, a South Korean diplomat, says the North expressed regret for a water discharge that killed six. (By Choi Woo-jung -- Yonhap News Agency Via Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 15, 2009

SEOUL, Oct. 14 -- There have been hiccups, such as the five missiles it fired into the sea on Monday, but North Korea seems unusually focused this fall on smoothing feathers that it ruffled earlier in the year.

The government of Kim Jong Il has made an unexpected effort this week to be conciliatory with South Korea, a U.S. donor and families split between the two Koreas.

A North Korean delegation expressed "regrets" Wednesday that a discharge of water from a northern dam created a downstream flood that last month killed six South Koreans.

The statement of "deep condolences" to the families of the dead, which the South Korean government regarded as an apology, came during a meeting near the border to discuss improved management of river flows between the two countries.

South Korea welcomed the statement, saying that it sends a "fairly positive signal" that North Korea wants to improve relations, a government spokesman said.

Meanwhile, in Pyongyang, North Korea's foreign minister met with the son of evangelist Billy Graham in what the state's official news agency described as an "amicable atmosphere."

The Rev. Franklin Graham, head of a private relief agency, said he traveled to Pyongyang this week in an attempt to build "a bridge for better relations" between the United States and North Korea. In the spring, the North kicked U.S. relief organizations out of the country and stopped accepting shipments of U.S. government food aid.

Also in the spring, North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile, detonated a nuclear device and declared that it would never again participate in six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Its behavior triggered tough U.N. sanctions that several South Korean experts said are squeezing the North's ability to profit from the sale of missiles and other weapons.

The North's cycle of provocation seemed to end in August, when it released two imprisoned American journalists and reopened its border with the South. Pyongyang's propaganda machine has stopped making regular threats of "all-out war" against its neighbors.

Instead, Kim suggested last week that his country would be willing to resume international arms talks, if it could first hold discussions with the United States.

In another signal of changed priorities, North Korea's largest newspaper called Wednesday for better ties with South Korea.

Those ties have been severely strained since the 2007 election of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who stopped aid and economic development programs for the North, until it agrees to get rid of its nuclear weapons.

In a commentary, the newspaper said, "It is the unwavering will of our republic to proactively realize reconciliation, unity, cooperation and exchanges according to the joint declarations" between North and South Korea.

Nearly two years ago, Pyongyang cut off reunions for families separated by the Korean War. But in September it allowed them to resume. Officials from the two countries plan to meet Friday to schedule more reunions.

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