North Korea opens doors to US diplomats

After years of hostility, Washington is to open an office in Pyongyang and forge closer links

Forty-three years after the end of the Korean War, the United States is close to opening a representative office in North Korea, the last of the old Stalinist regimes and one of America's few remaining Cold War enemies. The opening of a diplomatic office would mark a historic shift, after years of implacable hostility on both sides.

According to officials of international organisations recently returned from North Korea, the US state department has already assembled a team of Korean-speaking specialists in Seoul, and is likely to open a liaison office in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, by the end of the year. The two sides are already negotiating the small print of the agreement, including where the American diplomats will stay, and the consular protection extended to their families. The biggest obstacle appears to be South Korea: the announcement must be presented in such a way as to avoid humiliating the Seoul government which has resisted the increasingly close ties between Washington and Pyongyang.

The opening of the mission will be a coup for the North Korean government which has for years been seeking closer ties with the US, since the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe deprived it of its trading partners and left it ideologically and diplomatically isolated.

In 1993, the North provoked a crisis when it refused to let international inspectors visit two mysterious sites suspected of housing a nuclear weapons programme. The ensuing diplomatic panic turned out to the North's long-term advantage: in return for replacing its suspicious nuclear technology with safer foreign reactors, Pyongyang was rewarded with interim supplies of fuel oil and opportunities to talk to American officials and technicians.

The US has always resisted Pyongyang's demands for direct peace negotiations, insisting that any revision of the 1953 Armistice, which brought to an end the Korean War, must be concluded between the two Koreas. But Pyongyang has been under increasing pressure since last year when disastrous floods caused widespread food shortages and malnutrition, and raised fears that desperation might drive the North to some kind of military adventure. "In order to maintain stability," the US Ambassador to Seoul, James Laney, said in May, "we need to begin now to build an edifice of positive relationships that can complement and take us beyond deterrence."

At a summit meeting in May, President Clinton and the South Korean President, Kim Young Sam, proposed four-way peace talks involving the US and China as well as the two Koreas. The US appears to be awaiting some kind of positive response to this proposal before pressing ahead with its plan to dispatch diplomats to the North, thus allowing President Kim to save face by claiming that he has brought his old enemies to the negotiating table.

Officially, the Pyongyang mission will be an "American Interests Section" in the Swedish embassy, although it will be staffed by US state department officials and will perform many of the duties of an official embassy, including the issuing of visas. The Swedish embassy was recently scaled down after budget cuts and is being restored to diplomatic strength to accommodate the Americans under a neutral flag. According to official sources, the Americans are hoping to reside in the former East German embassy.

Other subjects being negotiated include the route which the American emissaries will take from Seoul to Pyongyang. At the moment, travellers must take a detour via Peking, but discussions are in progress about opening the land border between the two Koreas. Another problem concerns the wives of the state department's diplomats: several of them are South Korean, whose presence in Pyongyang could be diplomatically sensitive.

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