North Korea

Patient diplomacy over N Korea pays off

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 2008, 12:00am


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Amid the global financial panic, some good news for a change has emerged from the most unlikely place. Pyongyang has agreed to verification steps that are key to nuclear disarmament negotiations. In return, Washington has finally honoured a promise to remove North Korea from a list of countries accused of sponsoring state terrorism. In a face-saver for the North, the Americans announced their move first. But which came first does not matter. It was a welcome breakthrough for patient diplomacy among the partners to the six-nation talks to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

As the financial crisis unfolded, the pact to end North Korea's nuclear programme had slipped from the international radar. But there were worrying developments. Pyongyang and Washington were at odds over full inspection of nuclear facilities and removal from the state terrorism list. As a result, North Korea was moving to restart a disabled nuclear reactor and had taken other provocative steps, including test-firing missiles and expelling UN inspectors.

If it was an attempt by Pyongyang to get the attention it craves from great powers distracted by economic bad news, it worked. The North's possible return to building and testing bombs was a reminder that the threat to global security is also a pressing issue. It had taken five years of talks brokered by China to reach a non-proliferation deal. But the deal is yet to progress beyond its first stage. North Korea remains a difficult negotiating partner. All the countries concerned must give priority to following the disarmament road map agreed to. Ironically, grim global economic prospects might have helped concentrate Pyongyang's mind on its obligations. More than ever, it needs substantial aid promised under the pact to ward off the threat of famine and instability.

There are understandable concerns that Pyongyang is being rewarded for bad behaviour. Tokyo is unhappy that North Korea has not addressed issues relating to its abduction of Japanese citizens. But if the latest breakthrough salvages a nuclear disarmament deal during the dying days of the Bush administration, the world will be a safer place.