Communist North Korea's "greatest goal" is to better ties with the United States in order to bolster its national security and help restore its broken economy, says South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Kim noted "North Korea cannot sustain itself without change."
"Without doing things differently, without getting cooperation and assistance from South Korea and the United States and the rest of the world, it cannot get out of this terrible situation," he said.
The U.S., long viewed by North Korea as a mortal enemy, is now seen in a more favorable light. While 37,000 Americans troops are in South Korea guarding against military threats from the north, the U.S. also provides humanitarian aid to the communist regime.
"I do believe that North Korea keenly feels the need for better relations with the United States to get itself out of the economic crisis and to assure it national security. As far as I could see, North Korea's greatest goal is to improve relations with the United States."
It appears that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been reassured that countries such as China, Vietnam and Laos have been able to maintain their communist political systems yet have been able to improve economically. The South Korean president says "I think it sees the Chinese model and others like it as perhaps the way to go as well."
There are some reservations as to whether or not North Korea really wants to improve relations with the U.S. and South Korea. Some feel that it is just a ploy to receive more economic aid.
In an attempt at reconciliation, South Korea's Kim met with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Il last June, and they're expected to do so again. "The visit will take place within this year. That's for certain," said Kim.
As a result of the historic meeting, the two countries have also reopened liaison offices in the truce village off Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone and work has started on reconnecting a cross-border railway.
There have been two brief reunions of family members split by war and another is planned, though Kim said, "the exchanges have not been brought up to a full-fledge speed yet."
"We are promoting tension reduction on the one hand and exchanges and cooperation on the other hand with North Korea in parallel," Kim said. "Both tracks, I believe, are still at the beginning stage. But the situation overall is not all that bad."
Speaking about his "sunshine policy of engaging North Korea, Kim said that North Korea was initially suspicious of it. "But now I do believe that he has come to see the genuine intentions of our policy, that we mean it no harm, that we do not seek immediate unification, that our goal at this point is peace, exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas."
The new Bush administration has indicated a willingness to support South Korea' efforts to reach out to its northern neighbor.
Kim declined to comment on implications for Korea of President Bush's plans to go ahead with a national missile defense system. Russia, China and North Korea are against such a program, fearing it could result in an arms race.
"I have not to this point heard any extensive briefing from the new U.S. administration on this plan," Kim said. He noted that the Clinton administration hadn't talked to him about this issue, but that he expected the U.S. government "would explain when the time is right."
Still, Kim was optimistic. Asked to speculate on the future, he replied, "I don't think there's anybody who can say with confidence what North Korea will be doing for sure or not. But I do believe that Kim Jong Il has begun to take a new direction toward change."
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