Ray of sunshine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2001, 12:00am

North Korea's plea to reopen talks with Seoul 'as soon as possible' is welcome news, though a note of caution is wise when considering the latest Pyongyang statement about anything. But it appears the north has heeded advice from its best foreign friends and is replacing recent bluster with a more diplomatic attitude towards its next-door neighbour.

This new note of conciliation follows a virtual freeze in north-south relations. The two governments have had no official exchanges since March and various peaceful plans - such as building a cross-border railway - have bogged down. Instead, the north had resumed its former rants about imperialism, suggesting the south's 'sunshine policy' had reached a dead end. But yesterday's statement emphasised that Pyongyang wants to build 'a wider road' to improved relations and seeks 'a positive response'.

That will be forthcoming. South Korea's Kim Dae-jung has been losing influence as his presidential days near their end and his northern policy seems to founder; he even faces the loss of his unification minister due to an opposition-led no-confidence vote in the legislature. Pyongyang's announcement appears to revive the sunshine policy which he hopes will be his main legacy.

Just why Pyongyang's Kim Jong-il has changed his tone remains unknown. But it seems likely that he is heeding advice from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he visited recently, and President Jiang Zemin, who today will begin the first Pyongyang visit by a Chinese leader for nine years.

Neither Russia nor China is willing or able to rescue North Korea from financial disaster. Its economy has failed, the people rely on foreign food aid and prospects are grim. Both nations are telling Dear Leader Kim to loosen economic controls and open to world trade. But to gain the global response he wants, he must pay the price of relaxing tensions along the over-armed border with South Korea.



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