North Korea

Small step forward in dealings with N Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2007, 12:00am


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The cash dispute holding up North Korea's denuclearisation has been resolved and the process is back on track. A timetable was clearly set out in talks in Beijing four months ago and Pyongyang must now return to this in earnest, proving through goodwill that it can be relied on to be a partner in global peace and stability.

But this is not a one-way street; all parties to the deal must show resolve in ensuring that the North can shut down its reactor, scrap its weapons and end decades of isolation. Only through diplomatic and economic integration with the wider world can the nation turn from the course that led to its developing atomic weapons.

The row over cash frozen by the US in Macau's Banco Delta Asia showed just how removed North Korea had become. Despite the funds being released, no bank was willing to transfer them to Pyongyang. Finally, the US ignored its own sanctions on doing business with the North, last week allowing the money to be sent to its Federal Reserve, then on to Russia's central bank and from there, to a North Korean bank account in Vladivostok for collection. If the North is to join the global economy, there must be trust and understanding so that the most basic ingredient of doing business - the international banking system - can be utilised.

This is some way off, though; before such facets of any working relationship can be engendered, North Korea has much to do to prove it is worthy of such standing. While UN nuclear inspectors have been invited back after being expelled in December 2002 and will return next week to begin the process of shutting down the reactor at Yongbyon, this is only the first phase of the timetable.

The next stage involves the North declaring and disabling all its nuclear programmes in return for fuel oil or aid and diplomatic benefits, including ties with the US. Sanctions imposed by the US and UN Security Council after the North tested a nuclear device last October have to be lifted, the country has to be removed from Washington's list of 'rogue nations' and a decades-long dispute with Tokyo over kidnapped Japanese must be resolved.

Brokering agreements on each stage will take time; almost four years of talks between the North and China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US passed before a final deal was struck in February. But as shown by Pyongyang's insistence that the cash in Macau be handed over before it would shut down its reactor - despite the timetable stipulating it must be done within 60 days of the agreement - unforeseen trip-ups lie ahead.

North Korea has proven over the decades, after all, to be an unreliable deal-maker. Its nuclear test amid the negotiations showed how able and willing it is to derail progress. But the US and Japan are also capable of upsetting agreements. Ultimately, all nations should be working towards reducing tensions in the region; and for this to happen, perceived military threats have to be lessened to build mutual trust.

Only the supreme optimist would have said in February that the scrapping of North Korea's nuclear programme would go without a hitch. Instantly, North Korea raised the Macau bank account funds issue, proving pessimists right.

With such a long process ahead, the potential for more missteps is great. But given the economic and political benefits for North Korea for sticking closely to the deal, and for other nations in finally resolving the region's biggest threat to stability, ensuring it reaches fruition has to be a priority.