PANMUNJOM, Korea — The giant armies of North and South Korea confront each other here across a strip of pavement and a few old barracks.
For a few hours one frosty morning earlier this month, the soldiers were at ease. South Korean reporters drifted across this heavily armed border, greeting their northern counterparts like old friends. North Korean army officers in gray wool overcoats walked shoulder-to-shoulder with their khaki-clad South Korean rivals. Young girls in brightly colored Korean dresses presented flowers to dignitaries from the north.
It was another scene in what has become an increasingly routine exercise in inter-Korean diplomacy. This time, however, the two sides surprised each other by signing, at a hotel on the outskirts of Seoul, a historic agreement calling for sweeping changes with an intent to bring peace and ultimately reunification to the bitterly divided peninsula.
North Korea is not about to join the march of socialist nations to democracy, free trade and international cooperation. Experts believe it is close to being able to make an atomic bomb, although it denies that and refuses to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities. The two sides will be discussing the issue at Panmunjom the day after Christmas.
And North Korea makes no pretense about preserving human rights. Amnesty International says the Pyongyang government has never answered its request for permission to look into reports that tens of thousands of people are being held for political reasons at correction camps around the country.
But a picture of that hermit nation pieced together from interviews with North Korea watchers, including government officials, academics and defectors, reveals a nation under intense pressure to break out of its isolation to stave off economic collapse.
"Those closest to (President) Kim Il Sung and (the president's son) Kim Jong Il know the regime can't last for long if things remain as they are," says Ko Young Hwan, a 38-year-old North Korean who became the highest-ranking diplomat to defect from North Korea when he left his post in Congo earlier this year. "Politically, economically and diplomatically we are lost."
Ko comes from a prominent family. His father was governor of a northern province, while one of his brothers-in-law is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. As a diplomat, Ko had special privileges, but some of his family, including an engineer brother who works in a missile plant, complain of a lack of food and basic necessities, he says.
"The standard of living is worse than Africa," says Ko, who has served as an interpreter for Kim Il Sung and was speaking in fluent French. Factories are having trouble operating and stores can't restock their shelves, he adds.
"One day, you go to the shop and suddenly they no longer have any matches," Ko says. "Last year they ran out of salt."
North Korea is seeking a way out of its isolation in hopes of getting aid for its tottering economy. It has recently joined the United Nations, opened talks with Japan and is now seeking rapprochement with the United States.
"They made far greater concessions than we anticipated (in recent talks) because they feel they need to do something about their isolation," says Lee Dong Bok, special assistant to South Korean President Roh Tae Woo on unification issues and one of the delegates representing the south in talks with the north.
But Lee is skeptical about how far the north is willing to go toward promoting the open economic and social exchanges, including free travel, pledged under the new agreement. His doubts are fueled by the country's erratic past.
North Korea has long behaved as an outlaw state. The country's agents killed 17 South Korean officials, including four Cabinet ministers, in a 1983 bombing in Myanmar and are believed responsible for an in-flight explosion aboard a Korean Air Lines jet in 1987 that killed 115 passengers and crew. Its diplomats commonly trade in black market cognac and diamonds to earn foreign exchange, says Ko, who says he was expected to do such things in Congo.
Kim Il Sung, a 79-year-old dictator who has ruled North Korea with an iron fist for 46 years, has chosen as his heir his son, Kim Jong Il, an impulsive man who loves Western films and is accused of arranging the bizarre kidnaping of a South Korean actress and film director in 1978 to develop North Korea's film industry.
As has happened in other Communist countries, North Korea finds its economy deteriorating in today's changing world. The old Soviet Union, which once gave North Korea cheap "friendship" oil in barter trade, now demands hard currency. North Korea, which exports little and consequently doesn't have enough foreign exchange to pay interest on its debt, has been forced to run its factories at less than half capacity.
When diplomats visit clinics in Pyongyang, doctors often ask them if they have any aspirin or penicillin to share. "They have nothing in these clinics," says Ko.