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Koreas Open Cabinet-Level Talks Monday - 2002-08-11

North and South Korea open three days of cabinet-level talks in Seoul Monday, less than two months after they fought a deadly gunbattle at sea.

After nearly a year of frustrating setbacks, canceled meetings and a deadly naval clash, a senior North Korean delegation meets officials in Seoul this week.

South Korea is cautiously optimistic that reconciliation efforts could get back on track. South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong says these meetings will be an acid test of how sincere North Korea is about opening a dialogue with Seoul and its key allies, Washington and Tokyo.

Expectations for better relations peaked in June 2000, when the two Korean leaders held their first-ever summit in Pyongyang, pledging to work toward eventual reunification.

They agreed to series of joint projects to bring together families divided by a half century of hostilities, reconnect road and rail links and implement economic agreements to encourage cross-boarder business.

A series of meetings were held and pledges made, but most of these projects have never gotten off the ground. Then last year, the meetings stopped, too. North Korea broke off contacts without much explanation. Then President Bush in January called North Korea part of an axis of evil countries developing weapons of mass destruction. Tensions rose further, culminating in a deadly naval clash in June.

But at the end of July, North Korea changed course again, signaling it was willing to restart dialogue with the South, the United States and Japan.

The August 12-14 high-level meetings in Seoul are part of a series of expected diplomatic contacts in the next few months.

Many political analysts attribute the latest thaw in the North's attitude as a reaction to the changing political climate in the South. President Kim Dae-jung, the champion of engaging North Korea, has seen his party lose favor due in part to worsening relations with Pyongyang. The man who seems most likely to win December's presidential elections, Lee Hoi-chang, is expected to take a much harder line in dealing with the North.

"I think the North Korean government is scared that time for constructive talks is running out, said Robert Ward, a Northeast Asia analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. "Kim Dae-jung, the current president, leaves office in February 2003, and so North Korea wants to make the most of the last few months it has with a relatively friendly government in the South.

"If Lee Hoi-chang wins, than North Korea will be faced with an obviously hostile regime in the U.S. with the Bush administration's fairly hard-line stance towards the North, a fairly uncompromising government in Japan under Prime Minister Koizumi, and a harder line government in Seoul. I think it is last chance time to offer some concessions and get things back on track," said Mr. Ward.

North Korea, which is plagued by famine and shortages of every kind in its moribund centralized economy, is heavily reliant on the South and its Japanese and American allies for aid. In an effort to reduce its reliance, the North has in the last month embarked on a reform plan believed to be the most dramatic liberalization in 50 years.

There are even reports that the North has slashed the official exchange rate for its currency against the dollar. The government has also apparently raised workers' wages, loosened price controls, and started to dismantle its rationing system.

Analysts say this may be another reason Pyongyang has decided to take a more conciliatory tone at this time. Mr. Ward says that in order for these reforms to work, the North will still need aid and loans from the South and its Japanese and American allies.

"The North Koreans have not, with the naval spat and cancellation of other planned meetings, done themselves any favors in terms of getting aid," said Mr. Ward. "The whole idea of securing concessions from the relatively friendly government Kim Dae-jung is that the North wants to get as much economic good as it can."

Several other moves to improve North Korea's ties with the outside world are in the works. On August 15, South Korean civic groups will host North Koreans for a joint celebration of the 57th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule. Japanese and North Korean Red Cross officials will meet in Pyongyang on August 18 to discuss humanitarian issues, including missing Japanese nationals whom Tokyo believes were abducted by Pyongyang.

At the end of September, North Korea plans to send a team to Pusan in the South to participate in the Asian Games for the first time.

While the time appears ripe for improving ties between North Korea, the South and its main allies, President Kim Dae-jung stresses realistic goals. He recently said that consistency is vital for promoting South-North relations and that Seoul must not be fixated on short-term results.