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Has North Korea Chosen a New Path?

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

SEOUL - Madeleine Albright's successful visit to Pyongyang has been a great leap toward North Korea's key goal of normalizing relations with the United States.

It has not yet resolved the question of whether Pyongyang is just engaged in tactical maneuvering to extract more cash from the outside world, or is in the early stages of a long-term strategic policy shift involving a Chinese-style opening to the world. But it does add weight to the argument that Kim Jong Il recognizes a need for change if his regime is to survive, and is now strong enough at home to deliver real dialogue with the United States and South Korea.

If Kim Jong Il is willing now to make major concessions on missile sales and tests, his highest card, it will suggest that he has longer-term objectives than simply staving off another food shortage. Establishment of relations with the United States and removal from various blacklists will mean access to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and an influx of cash from Japan. These imply a willingness to accept a foreign involvement in Korean reconstruction that goes well beyond that of the food aid and humanitarian assistance it has accepted only out of dire necessity.

The North has always played its few cards - development of nuclear and strategic missiles - very well, in the process straining the unity of the United States, South Korea and Japan in dealing with Pyongyang. Now it has done so again.

When the United States proved intransigent on missile issues, Kim Jong Il picked up the olive branch offered by Kim Dae Jung's ''sunshine'' policy. Having extracted much good publicity from Kim Dae Jung's visit, raised expectations of future progress and ridden a wave of Korean ethnic solidarity, Kim Jong Il has been able to turn to the issue of relations with the United States, which is regarded as more important than Seoul. The United States in turn has become more receptive to the North, not wanting to find itself sidelined by a combination of pan-Korean sentiment and Beijing's strong influence in both Koreas.

Now it is the turn of South Korea and Japan to wonder whether they are being ignored. The Albright visit, following shortly on the sight of Marshal Cho Myong Nok, the North's second in command, in full uniform being greeted at the White House, has reminded the South that substantive progress on North-South relations since Kim Dae Jung's visit has been slight. The North has been failing to respond to Seoul's push for further family reunions and economic cooperation such as reopening rail links.

It is not clear whether this stasis is typical Pyongyang obduracy or is due to a real shortage of officials in the North able to handle these issues. The Albright visit alone, with the accompanying press army, will have put huge pressure on the Pyongyang bureaucracy. The North has also been active in successfully wooing Britain, Germany and Spain into agreeing to diplomatic relations to coincide with last week's Asia-Europe summit meeting in Seoul.

However, to many in a still suspicious South, Pyongyang's sincerity is suspect. Seoul's priorities are family reunions, economic links and movement toward force reductions, particularly the withdrawal of some of the North's huge artillery arsenal positioned within range of Seoul. While the opposition here offers no real alternative to Kim Dae Jung's ''sunshine'' policy, the president, with no majority in Parliament and facing a more skeptical public, is in no position to offer more financial carrots to Pyongyang.

Although the amount being spent on the North by the government is tiny compared with the cost of its domestic financial bailouts, it is politically sensitive. The South is also now quietly worried that if the North does open up, foreigners will get more business opportunities than South Koreans do. For all its ethnic talk, Pyongyang would rather rely on foreigners than southerners for investment.

Japan, meanwhile, has been making scant progress in its relations with the North. It will benefit from a deal on missiles, and the emotional issue of Japanese people believed to have been abducted by the North can probably be resolved by sleight of hand. But Japan remains very suspicious of Pyongyang while knowing it will have to come up with much money, under the guise of reparations, to secure influence there and counter that of China, its traditional rival for Korean friendship.

For Japan, too, the possible end of North Korea's role as regional bogeyman will undermine existing certainties. Without a ''rogue'' state so close, it will need to admit that its desire for a U.S. missile defense shield is out of fear of China, not Pyongyang. Eventual U.S. withdrawal from Korea would probably weaken the U.S.-Japan alliance.

That is all looking well ahead. For now, after the visits to Pyongyang by Kim Dae Jung and Mrs. Albright, subsequent progress is likely to be slow even if enough is achieved in the coming days to enable President Bill Clinton to visit. The North is a hard bargainer and is not in a hurry. Indeed, it cannot afford to hurry lest the controlled change it seems to want becomes an avalanche that sweeps away a cruel and elitist regime whose only achievement has been in survivalism. But if it can add Washington and Seoul to the list of those who prefer a softer version of Korean communism to any likely alternatives, Kim Jong Il's current policies will be seen as a sensible strategy for survival, not a tactical gambit.

[Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.]