Asia's most isolated country, North Korea, is slowly emerging from its shell, but when it joins the world community is anyone's guess. What is certain is that it must be given every encouragement to take the necessary steps. Following the half century of acrimony since the Korean War, Pyongyang is cautiously opening up. With a starving population and an urgent need for foreign currency, its leaders have realised they can no longer cling to a closed-door mentality. Next month, the Arirang Festival, a two-month cultural extravaganza, begins. Although cynics point out it coincides with the World Cup soccer tournament hosted by rivals South Korea and Japan, it is such events, coupled with the opening of diplomatic relations with numerous regional and Western nations, which prove the North is changing its ways. There is a long way to go before strained relations with Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are repaired, but the breakthroughs of 2000 are a positive reminder. That was when South Korea's President Kim Dae-jung made an historic visit to Pyongyang for talks with the North's leader Kim Jong-il. Several reunions of families separated by the war took place, but other agreements, including a visit to Seoul by Kim Jong-il, are still to materialise. Relations have worsened since US President George W. Bush took office and labelled Pyongyang among an 'axis of evil'. This week could mark a turning point. Kim Dae-jung's adviser on security and foreign affairs, Lim Dong-won, goes to Pyongyang on Wednesday to try to resume talks with Seoul and Washington. Kim Jong-il raised hopes on Friday when he told visiting Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri he was open to fresh dialogue. The US, as stubborn as its adversary, is the biggest stumbling block. By maintaining 37,000 military personnel in South Korea - among them 22,000 soldiers, the biggest US ground force west of Hawaii - and a further 47,000 troops in Japan, Washington is exacerbating the animosities. The US has given no indication that it intends to lessen its regional military presence - in fact, with suspicions towards China undiminished, it seems likely it will be strengthened. How North Korea is expected to bow to demands to dismantle missile defences, stop money-earning weapons exports and give up an alleged nuclear programme with so obvious a military threat so close is anyone's guess. Peace on the Korean peninsula needs as much effort from the US and South Korea as the North. The US must lessen its military and verbal threats to help bring the Koreas closer.