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Tear down Korean wall, say friends in the North

The wall dividing North Korea from the South is up for demolition - if the North has its way. But,

Phil Reeves reports from Moscow, the secluded Stalinist state must first win the trust of its capitalist neighbour and long-time enemy.

North Korea wants to open up Berlin Wall style holes in the heavily militarised barrier that has long divided the Korean peninsula, according to one of its senior diplomats.

It might sound like a magnanimous gesture from the highly secretive Stalinist state, long secluded from the world. However, the barrier it wants to demolish belongs to its rival South Korea. The South regards the North as an aggressive adversary, possibly armed with nuclear weapons, and is unlikely to be impressed.

Less than four years ago an official from the North threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" after talks broke down. Two years later, the North also threatened to test its No Dong missiles and mounted a show of aggression by sending armed troops into the demilitarised zone.

North Korea's ambassador to Russia, Son Song Pil, was yesterday quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying that the move could eventually lead to the destruction of the entire wall, a development which would constitute a significant step towards peace between the two Koreas and even reunification.

His remarks follow several recent signs that bitterly hostile relations between the Koreas may be easing, 45 years after the Korean War. Technically, they are still at war.

Last year, North Korean negotiators sat down with American, South Korean, and Chinese officials for the first substantive peace talks in 40 years. Despite a long record of crowing at the shortcomings of the South, the famine-stricken and backward North has been unexpectedly quiet about South Korea's sudden plunge from boom to melt-down.

Fears about the North's nuclear programme have eased after it agreed to suspend sensitive development work in exchange for light-water nuclear reactors from the South, Japan and the US. And South Korea's president- elect, Kim Dae-jung, has been talking about increased exchanges and economic co-operation with his Northern neighbours.

According to Itar-Tass, North Korea "proposes making passages" in the wall, which was built by the South in the Seventies, as a "first step towards its full demolition". But, he warned, the process could be expected to be long and difficult.

A similar process foreshadowed the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989; but then, it was East Germany which began demolishing its own barrier.

The ambassador said the issue now depended on a political decision from South Korea which, though immersed in an economic crisis, is certain to fear a flood of refugees southwards, victims of a famine brought on by floods, drought, tidal waves and a poor harvest.