North Korea opens up, a little

A huge statue to Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. North Koreans are taught to revere Kim, who died in 1994, as a god-like father figure.
A huge statue to Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. North Koreans are taught to revere Kim, who died in 1994, as a god-like father figure. Tim Johnson / MCT

PYONGYANG, North Korea — It used to be a regular shtick at the People's Army Circus here. To the delight of crowds, clowns would don kamikaze wartime caps and lampoon Japanese. Then they'd clamp on big noses and ridicule Americans.

That kind of mockery, however, ended a few months ago.

"There's no ridiculing of foreigners now," said a Western diplomat who attends the circus regularly.

It's a minor change, but one that reflects a shift in the isolated North Korean capital, where the official attitude toward foreigners has softened and North Korea's propaganda machinery is playing down the nation's military might — and its nuclear weapons program.

For ordinary citizens, too, life appears to be easing in the world's last Stalinist holdout. Store shelves carry more consumer goods, even MP3 players. Fresh paint brightens some high-rises. And the energy situation, while still grim, has improved slightly in recent years, foreign residents say.

Ever so slightly, North Korea appears to be presenting its case to the world. Two days of talks between North Korean and U.S. envoys in Switzerland over the weekend underscore that negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program are back on track. A small thaw with Japan appears to be in the works. Next month, the leaders of communist North and democratic South Korea will meet for the first summit in seven years, one that's likely to bring financial dividends to the isolated regime of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il.

Even the massive flooding in North Korea last month, which left 960,000 people homeless or in damaged shelter, produced hints that Pyongyang is more willing to engage the outside world. The floods devastated crops, washed out 300 bridges and destroyed 20,300 homes, according to The Pyongyang Times, which said "several hundred" people died.

Instead of its normal strategy of shunning outside help, North Korea issued an appeal for aid that astonished humanitarian aid workers.

"This comes as a first in over 12 years that the authorities are appealing for assistance," said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the acting United Nations resident coordinator in North Korea. Moreover, U.N. teams were given "unprecedented access to the field," he added, lifting restrictions imposed in 2005, when North Korea sharply curtailed the presence of foreigners, apparently worried that they might incite dissent.

In response, the United Nations last week issued a flash global request for $14 million in flood relief for Pyongyang. Separately, neighboring South Korea is offering $40 million before the Oct. 2-4 summit between North Korean strongman Kim and South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun.

Another Western diplomat said the appeal by North Korea, which he referred to by its acronym, the DPRK, for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, surprised him.

"What's unique about the flood is the way the DPRK has handled it," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid getting crosswise with the North Koreans. "The money coming in is more than the damage done."

North Korea has let a dozen or so European, Canadian, Australian and American journalists into the country in the past month, one of its periodic such openings. Guides and censors imposed strict conditions, however, limiting photographs and video images, blocking street interviews and restricting itineraries to conventional tourist sites.

Yet even this limited opening, however, provided a rare opportunity to pose questions about North Korea's isolation. At North Korea's Panmunjom border post, where Korean People's Army soldiers stand nose-to-nose with South Korean troops, army Lt. Col. Ri Gwang-hol answered a reporter's question about reducing tensions between Pyongyang and Washington with his own query.

"Have you ever heard of the principle of simultaneous action?" Ri asked, launching into an explanation of action-for-action trust-building steps.

"If the U.S. side acts correctly, we will respond," Ri added.

Movement appears to be under way on a number of diplomatic fronts.

Japan, long bitter over abductions of more than a dozen of its citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, appears to be easing tensions with the North, pledging humanitarian aid for flood victims. Japanese envoys open a round of talks Wednesday in Mongolia with envoys from the North.

On Sunday, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said in Geneva that North Korea has agreed to identify all its nuclear programs and disable them by the end of this year. Six-nation talks setting out further steps will occur at mid-month.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test in October 2006, showing the world it had entered the club of nuclear powers, a source of great pride among the nation's 23 million citizens.

"If you have nuclear weapons, the enemy, the U.S., cannot attack us," said Li Gyong-il, a guide showing visitors around the USS Pueblo, a U.S. spy ship the North Koreans seized off their coast in 1968, provoking an 11-month crisis with Washington before North Korea freed the 82 crewmen.

But foreigners in Pyongyang said once-bellicose rhetoric has been toned down. Even the slogans at the Arirang Mass Games, the gigantic nightly gymnastic spectacle at certain times of the year in the May Day Stadium, no longer contain rousing references to military power.

Several foreign diplomats said living conditions are slightly improved, with more illumination in the city, street markets doing business and a steady trickle of Chinese merchants toting goods into the country.

"You can get MP3 players, DVD players, CD players. There are 15, 20, 30 shops where I could go to buy an MP3 player," said one diplomat.

De Margerie, the U.N. representative, cautioned that North Korea remains extraordinarily isolated, and that senior officials often remain resistant to the outside world.

"Working with DPRK authorities is always very challenging," he said. "I've worked in over 25 countries for the World Food Program, and this is one of the toughest, if not the toughest country."

But he said the Aug. 7-14 flooding, and perhaps other factors, brought change.

"There has been a definite shift in the last few weeks, and we just hope it continues working in that direction," he said.

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