Honesty the best policy for Kim, and his people

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am

More than a year has passed since North Korea agreed at six-nation talks to scrap its nuclear programme. Only the first stage of that deal - the shutting down of its reactor at Yongbyon - has been fulfilled. Successive requests to move on to the next level have been ignored. Patience with the regime is fast wearing thin.

The North's expulsion of South Korean officials from a joint industrial park on Monday indicates an unwillingness to co-operate. By returning to brinkmanship rather than continuing with diplomacy, it is putting in jeopardy any trust built since the negotiations, which China oversaw, began in August 2003. Hopes for the nation's development, and for peace and stability in East Asia, depend on progress being made.

Pyongyang gave no reason for its decision, but the move would seem to be a direct response to the tougher line the new government in Seoul is taking towards its neighbour. President Lee Myung-bak has tied giving aid to the North to progress on nuclear disarmament, the reuniting of families divided since the Korean war and the return of South Korean citizens believed to be held by Pyongyang. Aid to a hardline regime such as North Korea's must be handed out this way. The carrots-only approach of the past has, time and again, failed to end the threatening posture of dictator Kim Jong-il's regime towards rivals South Korea, Japan and the United States. Only if good deeds are matched by Pyongyang can the process move forward.

It is in Mr Kim's interests to comply. If his government ends the North's isolation by burying the hatchet with the US and South Korea over the 1950-53 war, his country will reap economic benefits. That is sorely needed: poverty is rife and a humanitarian crisis looms, with experts warning of the worst food shortages since a famine in the 1990s. Then, one million of the North's 23 million people are believed to have died of hunger. Lingering flood damage, high commodity prices and the possibility of a rift in relations with major donor South Korea could create an even worse crisis.

Relations between North and South Korea have been improving slowly in recent years. The Kaesong industrial complex was one of the products of the first meeting between the leaders of the countries, in 2000. A second last year between Mr Kim and Mr Lee's predecessor led to pledges of further aid by the South and the resumption of rail services across the border. But the moves have been largely symbolic, and what benefits there are have mostly gone to the North.

This situation could not continue, as Mr Lee made clear when he was elected in December. By freezing progress until Pyongyang came good on its side of the bargain, he was ensuring that the North's win-win tactics would not continue. In consequence, as revealed this week, North Korea has shown its true colours.

The next stage of the six-party agreement is for Pyongyang to fully declare its nuclear programme. It claims to have done so, but the partial list it has supplied falls far short of expectations. Until it does what it has agreed to do, reconciliation efforts will be stalled.

North Korea has nothing to gain by failing to comply. A standoff will only worsen its plight. Delaying in the hope the US presidential election in November will bring a change of policy is flawed; all candidates have made clear they would adopt a tough approach.

Diplomacy is the only responsible way forward. By being honest, transparent and reliable, North Korea will gain the acceptance, respect and development its leaders crave.

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