WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - After 50 years of often bitter confrontation, the United States formally eased commercial sanctions on North Korea yesterday, bringing the isolated, Stalinist nation a step closer to the international community.
The Clinton administration lifted export and import restrictions on most consumer goods.
U.S. commercial ships and aircraft will be able to carry approved goods to North Korea for the first time in a half-century. Individuals, such as Koreans living in the United States, will be allowed to directly transfer money to relatives in the reclusive nation.
"It's an important symbolic action," a senior State Department official said yesterday. "We are pursuing a policy of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, and as they address our concerns in the missile and nuclear weapons arenas, we are showing we are willing to act."
The move comes only a week after the historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, in which both nations pledged to work toward the reunification of the divided peninsula.
Yesterday's action was not unexpected. President Clinton announced Sept. 17 that he would ease the economic restrictions on North Korea.
Still, the easing of sanctions could accelerate the thaw in frosty relations between the two Koreas. State Department officials acknowledged the move would have little immediate economic impact.
A delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce might visit North Korea soon to assess the opportunities there, but few analysts are expecting a rush of investment.
The nation's exports in 1998 amounted to $743 million in products, according to the most recent published estimate by the Central Intelligence Agency, compared with $133 billion in exports for South Korea, the Associated Press reported.
"I'm not forecasting some explosion in trade or some particular product that would be traded," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
But down the road, South Korean firms could be lured north to build factories and use cheap labor to export products and raw materials to the United States, suggested Phillip Saunders, director of the East Asian nonproliferation project at the Monterey Institute for International Studies.
Diplomatically, administration officials hope the move will entice North Korea to bow to U.S. wishes on the development and export of missile technology.
The agreement to ease sanctions was part of a larger deal, under which North Korea froze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two U.S.-supplied nuclear power reactors and oil supplies worth $5 billion.
The North Koreans later agreed to suspend the testing of long-range missiles, not long after they test-fired a missile in August 1998 over Japan. That helped convince Clinton to ease the trade restrictions.
Republicans in Congress have long criticized the administration's dealings with the North Korean government, fearing the North Koreans were playing games to gain food aid and trade concessions.
The easing of sanctions was delayed when the United States discovered that the North Koreans were digging a giant cave, which some feared was a secret nuclear plant.
The North Koreans agreed to let U.S. inspectors into the site in exchange for additional food aid, and the site proved to be a big hole in the ground, Saunders said of what he called a ploy to extract more aid.
"It was ingenious, and that's the reason many people in China and in Japan see North Korea as basically trying to use its nuclear and missile programs as a device to extract aid and concessions from the United States," Saunders said.
Stephen J. Solarz, a former Democratic congressman and Korea specialist, called the criticism "fundamentally unfair."
The State Department believes the North Koreans are living up to their side of the bargain, and new talks will begin soon on further limits to the country's long-range missile program.