Signs that North Korea is opening up a little more to the world have been bizarrely strengthened by a mass wedding project to be staged on Saturday in South Korea by the Unification church, often referred to as the "Moonies". Prospective North Korean couples have sent their photos to a centre in north-east China, where they will be "matched" by church officials. The photos are to be displayed on a live video link while a mass wedding ceremony for 10,000 couples is conducted by the church founder, the Rev Moon Sun-myung, in the South Korean capital Seoul. The newly matched couples will continue to live in North Korea's self-styled "socialist paradise", but will be deemed to have been married in the church.
The Rev Moon is also to celebrate his 80th birthday in Seoul today at a ceremony that Britain's former prime minister Ted Heath and the former US vice-president Dan Quayle are expected to attend. The long-range mass wedding comes at a time when the north is expanding diplomatic relations with the capitalist world and may be heading for a breakthrough with the US.
The Rev Moon, who runs his evangelical church from Brazil, is back in his homeland to officiate at the mass wedding, where the fiancés will be joined by thousands more married couples who will "rededicate their vows". According to the official biography, the Rev Moon was once put in a North Korean labour camp for three years. In 1991 he returned to the north and was welomed by the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. This unlikely relationship between two ideological opposites has continued under Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong-il.
Last week it was reported that the Unification church was working on an automobile plant as a joint venture in Nampo, North Korea, with Fiat of Italy. Associates of the Rev Moon and Mr Kim cut the ribbon at the ground-breaking ceremony.
Italy last month agreed to open diplomatic relations with North Korea; a high-level Australian delegation hopes to begin talks later this month. The Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, arrived yesterday in Pyongyang seeking to improve relations which have slumped since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
On Tuesday the US said it was prepared to talk to North Korea about removing the country's name from the official list of "terrorist sponsors" in return for Pyongyang's agreement to halt its missile programme. Both sides are discussing a long-awaited visit by a senior North Korean official to Washington.
Observers in Seoul still expect the North Koreans to mask their diplomatic moves by periodic propaganda blasts against the US and South Korea. But they believe that the combined effect of many years of western food aid and the "sunshine policy" of South Korea's president, Kim Dae-jung, is producing results.
In another sign of easing tension, North Korea last weekend allowed two groups of foreign residents in South Korea to join a tour of the scenic Mount Kumgang across the border on the east coast. The first group included the BBC's correspondent in Seoul. There are plans for a cruise ship of Japanese tourists to visit at the end of this month. The Rev Moon hoped to be the first to open up Mount Kumgang but the Hyundai tycoon Chung Ju-yung clinched the deal first.