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Door Cracks Open in Korea

A day after North Korea’s contrite expressions of “deep regret” for a submarine intrusion in South Korean waters, the Pyongyang government said it was ready to take the first steps toward four-way peace talks with Seoul, Washington and Beijing. The gesture appears to open the door to long-sought negotiations on a lasting peace to replace a truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, and it comes at a time of desperate food shortages in the North.

But as always with the Koreas, appearances are deceptive. Before the peace talk announcement, loudspeaker messages at the Panmunjom border post lashed out at the “butchers” in Seoul as white boxes containing ashes of 24 North Koreans killed in the submarine incident were returned. The apparent spy mission resulted in the deaths of 13 South Koreans.

Despite ugly rhetoric, however, Pyongyang clearly appears to be edging toward discussions. The Clinton administration worked behind the scenes in New York to help revive the process. The strategic aim is to ease Pyongyang’s isolation and relieve tensions on the peninsula and East Asia as a whole.

The administration, according to Times columnist Jim Mann, offered North Korea a secret diplomatic package that included Pyongyang’s apology for the submarine incident and agreement to participate in a “briefing” with South Korean officials about four-way peace talks. Pyongyang also would take new steps to carry out a 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons program. And the United States might permit new food aid to North Korea.

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Formidable challenges remain ahead. With malnutrition spreading to mid-level bureaucrats and into military units, there could be destabilization. But in recent days a pragmatic first step has been taken.


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