South Korean President Park Chung Hee yesterday accepted a North Korean proposal that the two countries discuss a resumption of trade - a move that could lead to the first contacts between the hostile neighbors in five years.
In advancing his own proposal for a joing "consultative body for the promotion of South-North economic cooperation," Park was accepting part of a North Korean proposal made Monday in an article in th Communist Party newspaper Nodong Sinmun. The North Korean proposal had also suggested cooperation in the political, diplomatic, cultural and military fields.
Pyong Yang has made similar proposals in the past that Seoul has ignored and thus the move was little noticed in the West. There was no immediate explanation why Park decided to respond with a counter-proposal this time.
The North Korean paper said the aim of such cooperation would be "to connect again the nation's severed blood ties and provide preconditions for national unification."
In what was seen here as an abrupt political reversal, Park dropped his strenuous objections to North Korea's insistence on nongovernmental cooperation. The proposed body would consist of economic advisers and private businessmen and its objective would be mutual trade and technical cooperation.
There was no immediate response to Park's offer from North Korea. There have been no contacts between the two Koreans since 1973, when brief exploratory talks aimed at broad reconciliation collapsed amid mutual suspicions.
The United States promptly welcomed Park's call for economic cooperation with the North in a statement assering that "direct dialogue between the two Koreans states offers the best means for reducing tension on the Peninsula."
Taking note of Monday's commentary in the authoritative North Korean daily, the State Department voiced the hope for "a positive response by the North."
U.S. analysts saw Park's move as an effort to resume a dialogue with the North and diffuse tension on the peninula.
Although prospects for a flourishing bilateral trade are modest at best, these analyst noted that South Korea could import from the North various minerals, metals and feed grains. The North Koreans in turn could gain access to South Korea's textiles, steel, electronics and consumer goods.
The economies of the two countries differ widely not only in terms of their relative strength but also in their fundamental approaches. North Korea, with its state-controlled economy, was estimated to have achieved a gross national product of about $10 billion in 1976. South Korea's GNP for 1977 was estimated at $31 billion.
While acknowledging possibilities for modest bilateral trade, U.S. analysts said the political differences between the two ofted-hostile Korean regimes are great and, judging by the continuing rhetoric, these positions seem set in concrete.
In contrast to South Korea's fast-growing economy, the North Koreans have been experiencing difficulties. This year North Korea has defaulted on a number of loans made by Japanese and European banks for imports of Western industrial plant and equipment.
North Korea has linked the debt problem to a shortage of foreign currency. It has not even begun repayment on an estimated $370 million owed to Japanese banks and companies and due early in 1978. Moreover, the fact that its foreign sources of financing and technology are now restricted has forced Pyongyang to scale down its ambitious development plans.
In their authoritative daily, the North Koreans termed North-South economic cooperation as being of "particular significance."
The article said such cooperation would help "rehabilitate and develop the disrupted South Korean economy."
"It would also contribute greatly to preventing the South Korean economy from being subjugated to foreign monopolistic capital, stimulating the self-reliant development of the national economy," the article said.
The article denounced South Korea's economic policies as being overly dependent on foreign capital investments.
"This is a maneuver to completely eliminate the possibility of unified development of the national economy, cutting the artery . . . linking the North and South . . . and converting the South Korean economy into a local economy of U.S. imperialists."
While proposing the creation of a civilian joint economic body, Park also said yesterday that South Korea was prepared to hold a "pertinent ministerial meeting" with North Koreans to complement the effort.
It is uncertain whether North Korea would respond positively to Park's partial acceptance of their proposals. In the past, North Korea usually took what appeared to be an all-or-nothing approach.