Diplomatic Relations

Encouraging sign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 April, 1998, 12:00am

Although hopes of a rapprochement between North and South Korea have surfaced from time to time in the past without any progress being made, it does now look as though there could be a genuine crack of light just visible from the hidden world of Pyongyang.

It does not matter that much whether North Korea's proposal for a high-level meeting is the result of its increasingly desperate plight, or whether it is in response to the overtures of South Korea's newly elected president, Kim Dae-jung.

So long as this apparent small thaw leads to a real warming of relations on the peninsula, it is an encouraging sign.

On both sides the need to rise above the old ideological divide and to concentrate on practical and economic problems is crucial. A new and conciliatory mood has been set by Kim Dae-Jung, while the North, facing the human cost of its failed harvest, urgently needs the help that Seoul has offered.

The hope must be that Pyongyang now feels more able to take assistance, perhaps even to respond to the president's call for an exchange of envoys to open a direct channel of communication.

Moves by the South to ease restrictions on visits to the North by businessmen and the elderly, and the decision to allow unrestricted private investment in North Korea are also calculated to soften the atmosphere. So far, the response has been characteristically unclear style, with a response on one hand, and a rebuff on the other as the party newspaper criticised the new administration in the South.

The path ahead is clearly headed up a steep hill - the recent four-party talks with the United States and China ended in failure, and the situation remains volatile. The atmosphere has been further darkened by a double-agent scandal in which politicians from both sides are said to have colluded in manipulating South Korean elections.

For there to be progress, direct talks offer the best hope. If those are indeed in prospect in Beijing, the auguries are more promising than they have been for years.


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