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N. Korea: Economic Readjustment in Order? - 2002-03-28


A leading North Korean official has told the country's legislature the nation must readjust its economic foundations to engage in greater cooperation with other countries and international organizations. The statement comes amid several diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang indicating the reclusive Stalinist regime might be opening to the outside world.

North Korean Prime Minister Hong Song-Nam made the new policy statement in an address to the North's legislature, which has convened to discuss the government's annual budget.

Mr. Hong departed from the government's political philosophy of self-reliance when he said North Korea needs to improve trade and economic collaboration with other countries. The speech comes on the heels of Pyongyang's decision to accept a visit from a South Korean presidential envoy whose mission is to revive the stalled reconciliation process on the Korean Peninsula.

Also this week, North Korea sent a signal to Tokyo indicating it would reopen a probe into the whereabouts of 11 missing Japanese nationals. Tokyo believes they were kidnapped by North Korean agents for espionage purposes, but Pyongyang has denied any involvement. The fate of the 11 is a major bone of contention between the two countries. The Red Cross Societies of both nations have agreed to renew contacts on the issue after a two-year break.

In addition, North Korea's and Japan's health ministers are preparing to hold talks in Singapore this weekend to discuss compensation to North Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Masao Okonogi is a North Korea expert based at Japan's Keio University. He says he is cautious about reading too much into these events.

He says "it would be premature for Pyongyang to open up diplomatic relations with Japan and other nations." He adds that "North Korea currently cannot really move forward because it is on bad terms with the Bush administration, but it also knows it cannot stand alone."

Mr. Okonogi says that food aid is the key issue facing North Korea, since a series of natural disasters and poor central planning have led to a famine that killed hundred of thousands of people since the mid-1990s. He is skeptical that the country plans to open its economy, which is just one-thirtieth the size of South Korea's. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Wednesday that increased contact with the rest of the world would benefit Pyongyang and that determined efforts must be made to help North Korea realize that dialogue with the United States, South Korea and Japan, is a plus.

President Bush declared in January that North Korea was part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq and accused the country of developing weapons of mass destruction. He has also offered to reopen a dialogue with Pyongyang, but, so far, his calls have been rejected and he has been denounced as a hostile enemy of the North Korean regime.

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