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It's Time to End The Korean Cold War

THE Korean cold war is easing, ever so slightly. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is talking to both South Korea and Japan, encouraging foreign investment, and hosting increasing numbers of American visitors. Although dated propaganda films still include ritualistic attacks on the "imperialist South Korean puppet regime," officials meeting with Westerners focus on the possibility of positive future relations.

Unfortunately, the peninsula remains host to perhaps the sharpest military confrontation in the world, with nearly 2 million soldiers facing one another across the 155-mile demilitarized zone. Although the two Koreas signed a nonaggression pact last year, they remain deadlocked over nuclear inspections and other arms-control measures.

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Political talks are also not going well between North and South and are virtually nonexistent between Pyongyang and the United States. America maintains an economic embargo against North Korea and does not recognize its government. Both measures are intended to put pressure on Pyongyang, but both are self-defeating.

Although the economic sanctions undoubtedly hurt North Korea, such a unilateral measure inevitably can have only a limited impact. The North Korean elite that decides policy appears to be managing well enough: Croplands around Pyongyang seem flush, and Japanese products fill hard-currency stores.

Consumer products are limited, but that reflects socialist economics more than American policy. If the rumored famine is true, its effects have not reached the capital, major cities like Kaesong and Nampo, and the rural areas that I saw recently while driving in the country.

While the embargo may be doing little to bring Pyongyang to its knees, it is clearly resented by North Korean officials, who profess their determination to resist making concessions in response to it. Moreover, restricting North Korean contact with outsiders does nothing to encourage openness: It would be far better to flood the North with American businessmen and tourists.

Until recently the US has avoided high-level contacts with Pyongyang and refused to consider establishing official diplomatic ties. Messages have been passed through intermediaries, but that is no substitute for direct conversations.

For 40 years the ban on official relations made some sense, since North Korea's allies, the USSR and China, refused to have any contact with the South. But the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe combined with South Korea's growing economic power has transformed the diplomatic landscape. The old goal of "cross recognition" - with Russia and China recognizing the South, and the US and Japan recognizing the North - is now within reach.

Moscow established official relations with South Korea even before the USSR's breakup, and China recently followed suit. American and Japanese recognition (the latter is complicated by Pyongyang's demand for compensation for Japan's brutal colonial rule) would complete the process and help move North Korea more fully into the international community.

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Some people want to use the prospect of official contacts as a carrot to encourage movement on security issues, but the US has long maintained diplomatic relations with the most belligerent and repressive regimes. Given the North's dramatic move out of isolation over the past two years, further progress would likely come from a positive American move towards recognition.

Surely South Korea has nothing to fear from such a move: Seoul's economic prowess is what allowed it to snatch away North Korea's major allies, and its economic relations with the US will long exceed those with the North.

A divided Korea, like a divided Germany, was a tragic outgrowth of the US-Soviet conflict. Germany has since been reunited as part of a process that also liberated the people of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. But the Korean peninsula remains both divided and locked in a conflict dating back nearly 50 years. And despite the important signs of a thaw in relations, the North Koreans believe, with some justification, that their positive steps, such as restricting anti-US propaganda, haven't been recipro cated.

The US should encourage further progress by the North. Washington should also drop the economic embargo and undertake discussions intended to lead to diplomatic relations. Such steps are riskless for the US, but they could yield major rewards. With the peaceful coexistence of 60 million people at stake, it's time for the US to work a little harder to end the Korean cold war.

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