The United States yesterday lifted key parts of a nearly half-century-old trade embargo against North Korea, following what U.S. officials called a pledge from the highly militarized state to refrain from test-firing long-range missiles it is developing.

Trade in consumer goods and raw materials will now be legal. U.S. airlines will be able to land in North Korea and U.S. companies to invest there. Trade in goods that have military use will remain prohibited.

While it was unclear how much, if any, trade would result -- North Korea is effectively penniless and has few products the outside world wants -- lifting the sanctions ranks among the most dramatic gestures of conciliation that the United States has made since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The Clinton administration hopes the move will start a process toward normal relations and reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, where a military standoff continues a decade after the end of the Cold War.

Former defense secretary William Perry, who headed a recent review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, had recommended that the United States make a positive gesture if North Korea agreed not to test the Taepodong II, a new missile capable of reaching Hawaii and Alaska.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) met Thursday with Perry and "made it clear he was very concerned that the United States is on the verge of becoming a foreign aid benefactor of the most repressive communist government on the planet," an aide to Helms said yesterday.

Perry, however, disputed characterizations of the deal as rewarding the North for a military threat.

"I do not see it as a reward," he said. "It's just a move towards the kind of normal relations that we have with most countries in the world."

In a muted response, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told radio reporters that he had "some questions" about the easing of sanctions in light of North Korea's "very dangerous" behavior over the years. "But in view of the seriousness of the situation and the fact that the present situation, the status quo, cannot stand, I hope it [the U.S. action] will work," he said.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said Washington was starting down a "new and more hopeful road." But she also noted that the United States could reimpose sanctions if North Korea wavered.

The sanctions date to 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea in a bid to reunite the divided country under communist rule. Fighting ended three years later, but the two zones have remained on a war footing ever since. The United States keeps 37,000 troops in the South.

While communist regimes have fallen all over the world in the last decade, North Korea's remains firmly in power. Despite famine and economic collapse in the late '90s, it remains devoted to arms and ideology. In recent years, the U.S. government has tried to engage it in talks, often to find that it responds with new threats.

Last summer, North Korea test-fired a missile that flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean. The United States and its allies viewed that as a provocation and, after detecting signs of preparation for another launch this year, warned North Korea against it.

U.S. officials met with a North Korean delegation in Berlin between Sept. 7 and 12 and said afterward that they had received a pledge of no more long-range missile tests. North Korea has made no public declaration of that, however.

The United States has also expressed concern about North Korea's export of missile technology to other countries, including Pakistan. Perry said "we envision" that North Korea will eventually comply with the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement to restrict the spread of missiles, but that at present there is no pledge to do so.

In the early '90s, Washington worried that North Korea was trying to build nuclear weapons. In 1994, the United States reached a deal under which the North agreed to suspend its suspected nuclear program; in return, the United States agreed to organize construction of two light-water reactors, a type considered less dangerous, and imports of fuel oil.

Perry said the United States and North Korea came close to conflict in 1994, during a crisis that preceded that deal. The United States was within a day of applying major sanctions, which the North said would be an act of war, and within a day of making new troop deployments and evacuating American civilians.

South Korea yesterday said it welcomed the missile deal. "We feel that a gradual opening up of the system one way or another will generally create dynamics that will eventually lead to a more constructive North-South dialogue," said Lee Hong-koo, South Korea's ambassador to the United States.

In recent years, South Korea has tried trade diplomacy of its own, with limited success. Two-way exchanges totaled $383 million in 1997, but declined to $220 million last year. The North's economy is among the world's most primitive, and its officials often hostile to outside business people.

U.S. trade would likely be small too. "I don't have a line of American companies standing outside my door clamoring to do business in North Korea," said Willard A. Workman, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.