North Korea forced to open doors

THE most moving image of the Sydney Olympics for me came when the athletes from North and South Korea marched into the stadium together behind a blue and white flag representing the Korean Peninsular.

I once made a visit to the village of Panmunjom, on the 38th parallel that marks the border between the two countries.

Arriving at the heavily-mined demilitarised zone, or DMZ, from the South – the strongly recommended direction – was an eerie experience.

Republic of Korea soldiers gaze through their binoculars, across four km of no mans’ land at a country they have technically been at war with for half a century. North Korean border guards eyeball back equally steadfastly

US marines, some of the 37,000 US troops stationed in the South, fed me steak and chips in the PX canteen.

For dessert, there was a trip down a forbidding tunnel, dug to intercept a clandestine effort that started in the North and was discovered well under the DMZ.

The tunnel ended in a pool of electric light illuminating a machine gun post. Just around the corner, I was assured, there were poison gas canisters. The overall impression was of being strapped into a time machine stuck in reverse.

So I was more amazed than most this June when the 75-year-old South Korean President Kim Dae-jung arrived in Pyongyang for talks with his Northern counterpart, Kim Jong-il.

Demonised by the Seoul CIA as a kidnapper, a cognac-swilling drunkard and nuclear terrorist, Kim behaved more like a favourite uncle – cracking a series of one-line jokes and exuding an air of bonhomie.

Only last year, the rival Korean navies were exchanging gunfire.

Last week, the respective defence chiefs held unprecedented peaceful pow-wows.

North Korea is stony broke. The per capita GDP of $750 is probably overstated. Only US$360 million in foreign aid saved many of the 21 million people from starvation last winter.

China is getting tired of propping up its obdurate hermit kingdom neighbour with cut price oil, coal and grain.

Beijing is believed to have forcefully pointed out the benefits of a socialist market economy to Kim Jong-il. In short, he had no choice but to open the door to Seoul.

Some cold war warriors are shaking their heads over this sudden rapprochement. To be sure, it is unlikely that the Stalinist dictator Kim is about to embrace democracy and capitalism soon.

But tensions have been reduced in the most dangerous hot spot in the Asian region. Dormant dreams of reunification have also been reborn.

If a referendum was held in South Korea today, the millions of elderly people who still have relatives in the North would probably carry the vote. But it would take many years, and the cost would be astronomical.

As it is, now that Kim Jong-il has played the reconciliation card, Seoul is braced for the inevitable bill by way of cash contributions and trade assistance.

Foreign companies, including the US Cargill agricultural group, power plant giant Construction Engineering, and the Bechtel construction concern, are keen to invest in North Korea. Coca-Cola is ready to roll.

The country is not without potential. It is rich in reserves of copper, lead, and zinc as well as in gold and silver.

The Melbourne-based Molopo Australia NL mining company has a successful joint venture alluvial gold mine.

Molopo hopes to take its first North Korean gold out soon and send it to the Perth Mint.

Anyone from WA ready for a crack at the last frontier?

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