Pressuring Pyongyang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 1998, 12:00am

No matter how minor the progress in the preliminary four-party talks between North and South Korea, the United States and China, it is an achievement that the next round at least starts off with an agreement about the agenda.

The concessions which Pyongyang agreed to do not mean that it has altered its demand for US troop withdrawals or a separate peace treaty between North Korea and Washington.

The regime has to give some ground if it wants the US to continue pouring aid into the country, but that may be as far as it is prepared to bend when the real negotiations start. Officials have made it clear that the same demands will be back on the table at the next round.

For years now, analysts have been predicting that the secretive Stalinist state was on the brink of economic collapse. Yet in spite of reports that the general population faces starvation after two years of crop failure and decades of economic mismanagement, the only firm news to come out of Pyongyang concerns the purchase of a fleet of luxury limousines for government officials, the suspected building of an underground nuclear facility, and an attempt to launch a satellite.

So far, all attempts to rein in the North have failed. The 1994 agreement in which the United States, together with Japan and South Korea pledged billions in heavy fuel oil and food aid plus two light-water reactors, in return for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear programme, has been a one-sided arrangement.

It has wrung virtually no concessions from the regime, and there are suspicions that the nuclear freeze pledge has been broken. What may make the difference in the next negotiations is the growing accord between the US and China, following the Clinton visit. It was behind-the-scenes pressure from Beijing, as well as a carrot-and-stick approach from Washington which nudged North Korea into the weekend agreement.

If there is to be progress in the next round, it may depend more on the united efforts of the two major powers to pressure the regime, than in any growing desire from Pyongyang for peace.