Korean impasse

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 October, 1998, 12:00am

When President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea came to power promising to improve relations with the North by promoting peace, reconciliation and co-operation, he could hardly have expected Pyongyang to respond with threats of war. Relations between the two Koreas have never been easy, with most initiatives from the South either being rebuffed or undermined by incursions and sabre-rattling from the North. However, Mr Kim was the first southern president to offer a coherent strategy for peaceful relations with his unpredictable neighbour.

If North Korea's Kim Jong-il had been waiting for the opportunity to put quarrels with the South to one side and concentrate on feeding his starving people, here it was.

Yet Pyongyang has chosen instead to raise the stakes. Recent hopes of greater openness to trade and international co-operation have been deliberately dashed, with the same talk of self-sufficiency which drove the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres to quit the country in disgust as the North has shown it will continue to put military might above feeding its people.

While food distribution is allowed to collapse and soldiers guard fields to prevent starving people stealing the harvest, the North's Mr Kim spends money developing rockets capable both of launching satellites and of being mistaken by Japan and the United States for long-range ballistic missiles. At the United Nations General Assembly last week, North Korea warned of a growing threat of war. In a Tokyo newspaper, an official threatened to reunify the Korean peninsula by force next spring.

In the face of such belligerence, Kim Dae-jung has continued bravely to promise an end to war on the peninsula and make overtures to Pyongyang. The hope must be that the North will take a more conciliatory line when four-party peace talks reopen in New York later this month. On the current evidence, however, the talks are likely to be disappointing.