South Korea is sending a senior diplomat to Pyongyang in a late effort to salvage its faltering peace negotiations with its Stalinist neighbour before this summer's World Cup.
Lim Dong Won, a close adviser to the South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, will travel to the capital of North Korea in early April. "I will listen to the view of the North's highest authority and pass it to President Kim," Mr Lim said, signalling that he expects to meet the North Korean dictator, Chairman Kim Jong Il.
A spokesman for the South Korean leader said President Kim "felt it necessary for the highest authorities of the two sides to exchange a broad range of views on ways to prevent possible heightening of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
"We expect that [Mr Lim's] trip to Pyongyang will serve as an occasion to break the current stalemate in the relations between the South and North."
The latest focus of anxiety is the football World Cup, which is to be held this June in South Korea and Japan. Seoul fears that the North may try to embarrass the South by engineering a military confrontation during the tournament. Mr Lim said: "Without peace and stability, the peninsula could be in deep trouble. We can't host the World Cup without peace on the Korean peninsula."
Mr Lim's visit comes at a low point in relations between the two Koreas, which never signed a peace treaty after the 1950-53 Korean war. For 50 years, the peninsula has been the most militarised place in the world, with some 2 million North Korean, South Korean and US soldiers lined up along a frontier studded with landmines.
In June 2000, however, President Kim flew to Pyongyang for a euphoric summit meeting with Chairman Kim. After a series of warm encounters, the two men agreed on confidence-building measures, including reunions of elderly relations separated by the war.
President Kim was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his "Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with Pyongyang and, in December 2000, Madeleine Albright, who was the US Secretary of State, made a visit of her own. But then George Bush was elected to the White House and the months of patient diplomacy fell apart.
From the beginning, the new US administration signalled its distrust and suspicion of Pyongyang, culminating in Mr Bush's reference earlier this year to the "axis of evil" – Iran, Iraq and North Korea. By the time, a leaked Pentagon strategy review suggested that the US was examining the future use of nuclear weapons against Pyongyang, among other hostile states, the Sunshine Policy was in tatters.
Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday: "It is their intention to raise the cloud of the first nuclear mushroom on the Korean peninsula." And in a reference to joint exercises between South Korea and the US, which maintains 37,000 troops south of the border, a state newspaper said: "Through the ongoing war manoeuvres the US imperialists and the South Korean warmongers seek to finally examine and round off the preparations for an attack on the North."
The tension in Korea has been eclipsed over the past six months by the war in Afghanistan but, as the last Cold War front line, it remains one of the most unpredictable places in the world. The possibility that Pyongyang retains one or more nuclear weapons has never been ruled out – and the government's programme of manufacturing, testing and selling long-range conventional missiles has caused nervousness across east Asia and beyond.
Although North Korea is desperately poor and suffers recurrent food and fuel shortages, Pyongyang keeps about a million men in its armed forces. Despite repeated predictions that it would collapse like the communist regimes in Europe, the regime appears as firmly in control as ever, due largely to the extreme poverty of many North Koreans and the government's repressive control of information and political activity.Reuse content