North Korea's neighbors have detected a slight thaw in their chilly relations with the Stalinist state after its recent pact with the United States, leading to a number of proposals for more commerce with the usually closed country.
The Japanese are forming a delegation, led by a former prime minister, that will likely propose resumption of charter airline flights between the two countries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul wants to send a group to explore business opportunities now that the United States has relaxed its trade embargo. And Hyundai, the South Korea multinational, is shuttling back and forth with hopes to build an industrial park in North Korea.
North Korea is expected to reciprocate these signs of interest by sending at least a mid-level official in coming months to visit its two chief antagonists: the United States and South Korea.
These moves follow negotiations in Berlin last month in which North Korea agreed to stop testing new missiles in return for a relaxation of economic and political sanctions by the United States. Even as Congress debates the strategy of gradually improving relations with North Korea proposed by U.S. envoy William J. Perry, the Berlin agreement has launched the two countries along that path.
Pyongyang has not changed its public persona--its propaganda outlets continue to churn out fierce rhetoric--but some see indications of a new attitude.
"It seems North Korea is finally making a shift in direction toward accommodation," said South Korea Foreign Minister Hong Soon Young. "It doesn't mean it's speedy, but it is a shift."
"At least they have shown some signs they can negotiate with South Korea," agreed Hyun In-Taek, a political scientist at Korea University. "I don't think we don't have to expect too much from North Korea, but this is a little meaningful sign."
Others are more wary of declaring that North Korea, which has a history of contradictory signals, has made any fundamental change.
"I think it's far too early to tell," said Lho Kyongsoo, a political scientist at Seoul National University. "All the Berlin agreement says is North Korea wants to stay engaged with the United States. It's inevitably going to be a process of two steps forward and one step back."
Still, even the talk of new relations with North Korea is in sharp difference to the mood in early August. Then, North Korea was threatening to test-fire a new long-range missile and the drumbeat of warnings to North Korea by the United States, Japan and South Korea was at a near-crisis tempo.
They feared a second launch of Pyongyang's Taepodong missile. The first sailed over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998, causing considerable consternation. The three-stage rocket, if perfected, would put targets as far away as Hawaii and Alaska in the range of North Korea, which has sought nuclear weapons and is thought to possess chemical and biological weapons.
In the Berlin agreement, the North Korean government agreed to forswear further test launches and the United States agreed to take steps to ease the half-century-old political and economic sanctions. On Sept. 17, Washington lifted key parts of a trade embargo, permitting trade in consumer goods and raw materials, U.S. investment and landings in North Korea by U.S. airlines.
Pyongyang, in return, resumed the stalled process of repatriating the remains of Korean War soldiers. This week it turned over the suspected remains of four U.S. servicemen.
Even North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, seemed to get in the cooperative spirit. In a meeting Oct. 1 with officials of the Hyundai business group, Kim is reported to have remarked positively that Seoul appears to be a "global city"--a rare compliment that made headlines here. And North Korea has begun satellite TV broadcasts that can be seen outside the country.
Hyundai's chairman, Chung Mong-hun, has met with Kim to advance plans to build an industrial complex for production of cars, garments and electronic goods in North Korea close to the border. South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung has encouraged the Hyundai contacts and welcomed the Berlin agreement as in line with his own "sunshine" or "engagement" policy of improving ties with the North.
Previous South Korean administrations had objected to any negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington that excluded Seoul and demanded government-to-government contact with the North Korean government. Hong said Seoul is no longer worried about the order of steps.