North Korean leopard is unlikely to change its spots

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2008, 12:00am

The wanton killing of a South Korean woman on a tour of North Korea's Mount Kumkang zone shows the risks of dealing with Pyongyang, whether on nuclear weapons, trade and investment, or a secondary matter like a tourist programme.

North Korea has betrayed the confidence shown by South Korea in co-operating on the tourism venture, in which Hyundai Asan, an arm of the Hyundai empire, has invested huge sums in return for very little other than the hope that some day the programme will be profitable and North Korea will open to wider visits.

It was bad enough that North Korean soldiers were authorised to shoot to kill a tourist who wandered beyond the limits of the Mount Kumkang zone. The North compounded the offence by refusing to apologise - and demanding an 'apology' from Seoul - an affront that typifies the North's negotiating technique in talks on its nuclear weapons, as well as the North-South relationship.

The killing occurred amid six-party talks in Beijing on what's called 'the second stage' of the agonising process of denuclearisation. By agreeing to inspections of what it has done to disable its facilities at Yongbyon, North Korea has probably headed off objections by US conservatives to President George W. Bush's decision to take it off the US list of nations sponsoring terrorism. The US nuclear envoy, Christopher Hill, hopes to get through the second stage of disablement this autumn.

Mr Bush would then have a diplomatic good-news story before he steps down in January, even if the process hasn't reached the 'third stage' stipulated in the nuclear agreement of February 2007. In this final stage, the North is to go beyond 'disablement' and achieve 'dismantlement' so it won't be possible to pick up where it has left off.

US officials talk about an 'NK model' in which the North would move step by step in tandem with 'action for action' on its demands. The model differs substantially from the Libyan precedent in which that nation gave up its nuclear programme, welcomed inspectors and was then showered with trade and aid. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Libya 'an important model as nations around the world press for changes in behaviour by the Iranian and North Korean regimes'.

The latest talks focused on 'an actual verification protocol' for sending teams into North Korea, studying what has been done and confirming North Korean claims. Diplomatic talk, though, leaves unanswered how much freedom the inspectors will have and whether they will be able to look at other sites and facilities.

Inspectors must have access to the underground site where North Korea exploded a nuclear warhead on October 9, 2006, as well as the site or sites from which several missiles capable of carrying warheads were launched in July 2006. Inspectors will also want to see the nuclear warheads that analysts have long assumed the North has produced.

While acknowledging the output of plutonium, North Korea has said nothing about how many warheads it possesses. Nor has it made any mention of centrifuges imported from Pakistan while physicist A.Q. Khan headed that nation's programme. Finally, North Korea has shown no inclination to discuss its nuclear cooperation with other countries, notably Syria.

The US may rationalise the removal of North Korea from the terror list on the grounds that it has been many years since the 1983 bombing in Yangon in which 17 South Korean officials and four Myanmese were killed, or the downing four years later of the Korean Air plane over the Andaman Sea with 115 people aboard.

The killing of the South Korean tourist, and innumerable stories told by North Korean refugees, leave no doubt that North Korea remains a terrorist state - regardless of whether its name disappears from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals