A fresh sense of optimism on N Korea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2007, 12:00am

After months of impasse over the future of North Korea's nuclear disarmament, the flurry of diplomacy centred on Pyongyang in recent days has been highly intriguing.

Optimism - inevitably cautious when the Stalinist hermit nation is involved - is now rising across the region over progress on a number of key fronts.

A new round of six-nation talks to drive the implementation of February's breakthrough agreement on disarmament is now due to be held by the end of the month. South Korea, meanwhile, is due to start shipping pledged fuel oil to the North next week. International nuclear inspectors are also finalising procedures to verify the planned shutdown of North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made an apparently successful mission to Pyongyang to meet his newly appointed counterpart, Pak Ui-chun - a visit that came hot on the heels of a trip by US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill. South Korean and Chinese six-party representatives have also been meeting in Beijing, which will host the upcoming talks.

The air is filled with talk of possible meetings involving the two Koreas as well as China and the US - an atmosphere unthinkable just a few months ago. Mr Hill's Pyongyang jaunt took Beijing by surprise and sparked swift reciprocal action, diplomatic sources have noted.

'Everyone is talking about a fresh sense of momentum,' said one western source close to the talks. 'It's been months since we've seen any kind of movement like this ... let's just hope it can be sustained and meaningful.'

The recent transfer of previously frozen North Korean funds out of Macau has obviously provided the oxygen to revive progress. The challenge now is to push for quick, practical results to put the Macau debacle far into the background.

The broader political picture is also conducive to action. In Washington, for example, the Republican administration of US President George W. Bush is eager for foreign policy successes as his troubled leadership enters its twilight.

It is an election year in South Korea, too, and speculation is mounting that the pro-engagement administration of President Roh Moo-hyun will seize on six-party progress to stage a summit with the North.

The new mood was brought into sharp relief by a significant change in position by his main opposition, the Grand National Party (GNP). Sensing a shift in the political winds as voters clamour for progress, the traditionally conservative party is advocating its own North-South summit if elected.

It would also advocate a formal end to the war backed by a formal peace treaty and regular ministerial talks. The GNP also suggests the posting of economic representatives in respective capitals to promote eventual integration.

This last point is being seen as particularly savvy, given the deep-seated fear of the economic impact on South Korea that hasty integration, or the North's wholesale collapse, would bring.

Given the burst of activity, the fears and tensions that surrounded Pyongyang's first nuclear weapon test last October now seem a long way off. Yet they have not been forgotten, and diplomats engaging the North know all too well that Pyongyang may be quietly happy with all the attention its recalcitrance has fostered.

'We all have this nagging sense that while we don't want to reward them for their bad behaviour, that is exactly what is happening,' said one veteran regional diplomat.

'The problem is that the stakes are now much higher ... the alternatives to engagement are too horrible to contemplate.'

Many are now watching for any sign that the North might start reacting in character again and attempt to wring fresh concessions before any further progress is reached. In the meantime, the talking continues apace.