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Monday, 23 October, 2000, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Pyongyang reaches out
Korean summit
Pyongyang is keen to show a warmer image to the outside world
For years North Korea has been seen as one of the world's most secretive societies, but there are now clear signs that decades of rigid isolation may be coming to an end.

Once suspicious of all contact with the outside world, Pyongyang has gone on the diplomatic offensive.

North Korean soldier
For decades North Korea has kept a wary eye on its neighbours
As well as hosting the landmark inter-Korean summit in June, followed closely by the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, Pyongyang has held talks with officials from the US, Japan and the UK.

Diplomatic relations have been sealed with Australia and Italy, and the North is on the verge of establishing similar links with New Zealand and Canada.

More recently, details have emerged of overtures made to the leaders of nine European Union states, proposing the establishment of diplomatic ties and eliciting a largely favourable response.

Perhaps most significant of all though is the secret visit made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in May to Beijing - his first trip abroad in 17 years.

Making contacts

Putin in North Korea
Vladimir Putin: July visit sealed a new era in relations
Analysts believe this underlines the importance Pyongyang places on China's support.

Nonetheless, North Korea clearly wants to establish a broad range of international contacts - particularly with the big regional powers.

Pyongyang has several major strategic concerns, but its primary aim is to have an independent Korean peninsula.

For years it has viewed successive South Korean governments as being little more than the puppets of their American masters.

Sunshine states

Chinese congress
Beijing is seen as North Korea's main ally
But since South Korean President Kim Dae-jung brought his "sunshine policy" of constructive engagement to the fore, Pyongyang has been reassessing Seoul's position.

One area where there are signs that Pyongyang may be easing its position is on the key issue of the 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.

Until recently Pyongyang had demanded that all foreign troops had to be withdrawn immediately as a precondition for any further warming of relations.

Now, though, it appears that even in this sensitive area there may be room for negotiation.

Japan resurgent

It is possible that Pyongyang's stance on the presence of US troops has been overridden by one of its more immediate and pressing fears - that of a resurgent Japan.

Pyongyang believes that Tokyo is keen to dominate North-East Asia, and many North Korean diplomats have privately voiced fears that a close relationship between Japan and China would be to their detriment.

Japanese soldiers
Pyongyang fears the possibility of a resurgent Japan
Some in Pyongyang have argued that to counter such a move, Pyongyang and Washington need to form a closer relationship to balance a Beijing-Tokyo axis.

There is no doubt that Pyongyang sees Beijing as its main ally at the moment.

But North Korea is also working on a vision of a future Korean peninsula that does not have to rely on one strategic partner.

Hence improving relations with Russia, as illustrated by President Putin's visit in July, is particularly important as a counter-balance to Chinese influence.

And hence Pyongyang's apparent thaw in relations with the US - seen in the despatch of Kim Jong-il's right hand man, Vice Marshall Jo Myong-rok, to Washington and the reciprocal visit of Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang.

North Korean strategists believe that by developing ties with the three big powers they can balance each against the other, thereby ensuring their ultimate goal of a secure and independent Korean peninsula.

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