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North Korea's Goodwill Gestures Spark Debate

Asia: Overtures are viewed with both relief and suspicion by neighbors. A railroad project linking North and South begins.


DEMILITARIZED ZONE, South Korea — "Is North Korea ready for a new era of openness?" queried a large front-page headline Wednesday here in the English-language Korea Times.

It is the question of the moment. From Seoul to Washington to Tokyo, policymakers responsible for deciphering one of the world's most inscrutable regimes are puzzling over whether North Korea is sincere.

Photographs under the headline showed North Korean leader Kim Jong Il shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Another showed North and South Korean generals shaking hands after clearing the way for work to connect the two nations' railroads.

Yet another photo was of a husband and wife, estranged by the political division of the Korean peninsula, tearfully embracing at a round of family reunions.

To those who want to believe that North Korea is mending its ways, the photographs are incontrovertible evidence. In the last few weeks, a flurry of developments would seem to augur positive change.

The most notable was Kim's confession to Koizumi on Tuesday that North Korea had kidnapped at least a dozen Japanese to assist its spies--a surprising mea culpa from a regime that had indignantly denied such charges for decades.

And then there is the burst of progress on the railroads through the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea.

This morning, Koreans began clearing land mines in preparation for laying the rail lines. The work started at the South's boundary fence, where the South Korean railway system ends abruptly 10 feet from a tangle of electrified barbed wire. For the first time since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, nearly 100 South Korean soldiers marched in the untrampled wilderness of the DMZ and, with protective gear and heavy machinery, began clearing away half a century's worth of mines.

"This feels like the beginning of a new era. I am guardedly optimistic," said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Eddie L. Seaton Sr., who is monitoring the railroad work for the U.N. commission that oversees the armistice.

The reconnecting of the railroads was agreed to in 2000 but had been stalled by the North.

Meanwhile, the largest delegation of North Koreans to visit the South is expected next week in Busan for the Asian Games. In advance of the games, the North's flag was raised Monday with those of other participating nations, the first time such a thing has happened in South Korea.

Even former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose name became synonymous with reform, was sufficiently inspired by the events of recent days to send North and South Korea congratulatory messages.

It would seem that the momentum toward perestroika is almost impossible for even the hardest-line skeptics to dismiss.

"At this point, I think there cannot be any doubt that North Korea is on the verge of major changes," said Moon Chung In, a political scientist in Seoul who is writing a book about relations between the Koreas.

Still, there are many naysayers who believe that the outward signs of progress are merely a crafty maneuver by North Korea's Kim. If he can convince the Japanese of his sincerity, they say, he effectively isolates the Bush administration in its hard line toward North Korea. President Bush has labeled the North, together with Iran and Iraq, an "axis of evil."

The North Koreans need to avoid the possibility that they could be targeted by a preemptive U.S. military strike against the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, they may want to distract the world's attention from the Bush administration's demand that they open the country to international nuclear weapons inspectors.

"So far what Kim Jong Il has done is make some very adroit moves that are tactical in nature," said Lee Chung Min of Seoul's Yonsei University. "He wants to drive a wedge between the Bush administration and its allies in Asia."

Closer to home, it makes sense for North Korea to be on its best behavior ahead of South Korea's presidential election Dec. 19. It would like to see President Kim Dae Jung, architect of the "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North, succeeded by someone sympathetic--as well as generous with financial aid.

The railroad is one of the South Korean president's pet projects. Its big groundbreaking ceremonies with eloquent speeches and fireworks could play well with voters. But a senior U.S. military official says he would not be surprised if the North Koreans drag their feet on starting their portion of the work on the other side of the DMZ.

Then there is the matter of money from Tokyo. Lots of it.

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