WASHINGTON -- In one of most significant U.S. nods toward North Korea in half a century, President Clinton relaxed tight commercial and travel restrictions against the Stalinist regime yesterday in return for its promise not to test long-range missiles.
The announcement follows months of intense talks between North Korean officials and the U.S. government over the Communist nation's development of rockets that threaten Japan and the United States.
Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, the administration's chief negotiator, hailed the agreement as an important step toward easing tension in East Asia.
"For more than 40 years, the threat of another war on the Korean Peninsula has hung over our heads like a dark cloud," he said. "Today, that cloud is beginning to drift away."
The deal was immediately criticized by defense hawks who accused Clinton of submitting to ballistic blackmail.
Although congressional approval isn't needed for the White House to lift the sanctions, the wooing of North Korea promises to be divisive both on Capitol Hill and in the 2000 elections.
"I am concerned that we are once again entering the cycle of extortion with North Korea," said Republican Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
Gilman and other Republicans argue that rewarding aggression with economic favors only encourages North Korea and other rogue states toward more saber-rattling in the future.
North Korea, which launched a missile over Japan in 1998, has been preparing to test a more advanced, longer-range weapon for much of this year, according to intelligence sources.
The rockets threaten the balance of power in the north Pacific and could prompt a fearful Japan to rearm itself after 50 years of having little military muscle, defense analysts say. The new missile could potentially reach California, the CIA has said.
But as the result of Perry's talks, "we reached an understanding that the North [Koreans] will refrain from any long-range missile flight tests" so long as the two sides continue to talk and work toward improved relations, said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
North Korea gave those assurances earlier this month in Berlin.
Perry, who went to Pyongyang in May, said he expects top North Korean officials to visit Washington soon. He said he would remain part of North Korean negotiations "to the extent it's necessary and useful."
Yesterday's easing of trade and travel restrictions, which will take federal agencies several weeks to implement, offers more symbolic importance than immediate economic result, analysts said.
It allows commercial airline flights between the United States and North Korea, the importation of most North Korean goods and commodities, payments from Americans to North Koreans and U.S. investment ventures inside North Korea.
But North Korea has little to export and not much hard currency to pay for imports. The country's repressive government and centrally planned economy render it unattractive to Wall Street, financial specialists said.
Clinton's easing doesn't remove strict barriers on weapons trade and foreign aid that come with North Korea's designation as a terrorist-supporting state.
Yesterday's deal "is a thin sandwich, but it's a good first step," said Jon Wolfsthal, an arms specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"If you can at least get North Korea not to do anything while we continue to talk," he said, "I think that's worthwhile."
But others criticized Clinton for granting any accommodation to one of the globe's most repressive regimes.
"The North Koreans are going to milk this deal for all it's worth," said James Anderson, a defense specialist at the Heritage Foundation. "If the past is any indication, they will manufacture a new crisis in a few months to extract still more concessions."
In 1994, in exchange for international aid, North Korea promised to suspend and eventually dismantle its nuclear bomb program.
Some analysts suspect it of cheating, although no hard evidence of nuclear-weapons development has surfaced.
The country continues to make and export medium-range missiles to nations unfriendly to the United States, including Iran.
Yesterday's agreement, approved by both Japan and South Korea, is merely an exchange of oral promises. Nothing is on paper, but Perry said he expects that North Korea "will clarify their intentions on this in the weeks ahead."
The move is not irrevocable, administration officials stressed.
Spy satellites and other intelligence hardware allow close monitoring of North Korean air space, they said, and Clinton can reinstate the sanctions at the first sign of misbehavior by Pyongyang.
"It doesn't hurt us to lift sanctions," said James Lilley, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think Perry's giving anything away. And he has got the allies to come on board, which is very important."
But Lilley stressed the importance in future negotiations of restricting North Korea's arms sales to pariah states and getting new assurances that the country has scrapped nuclear bomb development.
The Clinton administration sees relaxed trade rules as a step toward normalized relations with North Korea, which have been virtually frozen since the 1950s.
Officials declined to speculate on what the next step might be, but analysts suggested it could include the opening of consular offices in each country or appointment of a permanent ambassador-at-large to deal with Pyongyang.
U.S. relations with North Korea emerged from a decades-long freeze in 1994, when the country signed the nuclear-weapons agreement in Geneva. But they have been marred by several incidents since then, including the missile launch last year and North Korea's shooting down of a U.S. helicopter in late 1994.
The United States has 37,000 troops in South Korea, legacy of the North's invasion in 1950, which sparked a three-year war. No peace treaty was ever signed.
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, called yesterday's agreement "a prudent first step."
He added, "If both nations continue to show a good faith effort, in future steps a peace treaty may eventually evolve."