Korean Thaw


The potential for economic cooperation linking South Korea's capital and management with North Korea's labor is enormous. It requires -- as capitalism in China and Vietnam does -- a Communist regime to provide a legal framework and encouraging climate for influences it used to consider alien and polluting.

South Korea's proclamation allowing limited economic relations by its businesses with North Korea promises the greatest contact between the two Koreas since 1948. It follows a false start in trade relations initiated in 1991 and abandoned the next year as North Korea's nuclear weapons program cast a chill.

The new policy is a pay-off for North Korea's accord with the U.S. on nuclear dismantling and substitution. It comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency resumed inspecting North Korea's nuclear establishment, as provided for in that accord. An even bigger carrot is on offer, U.S. willingness to allow North Korea into the 18-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group. The ultimate reward for good behavior could be national survival for the secretive regime in Pyongyang.

These developments reinforce the theory that North Korea's resumption of nuclear weapons development was a desperate attempt to get bought off; and that in the Oct. 21 accord, the West did buy up North Korea's nuclear weapons potential. Only vigilant monitoring will insure that the deal is kept rather than renounced and nuclear development resumed. Such vigilance will be easier to maintain if North Korea permits more access.

The new regime to replace the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, who died in July, is not clear. His son, Kim Jong Il, has been called "supreme leader," but not yet head of state or of the Communist Party. Very likely the regime, and its military component, are first trying to sort out their policy toward the West and South Korea.

President Kim Young Sam of South Korea has waxed hot and cold on the Clinton administration's management of the nuclear crisis with North Korea. Now he is on the same wavelength. Certainly South Korean big business is eager to exploit the low-wage North, as Japanese and Taiwanese capital are eager to exploit labor in China and Vietnam.

The most important requisite for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula is for the U.S. and South Korea to act in harness. At the moment they are. President Clinton and President Kim should see that it continues.

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