Kim's chance to build a bridge to Washington
WHEN the late North Korean president Kim Il-sung visited China in 1982, the editors of the China Daily were stuck for an English idiom to describe the closeness of the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing.
The Chinese expression they wanted to employ, translated literally, was 'as close as lips and teeth'. The editors did not view a more colloquial English translation, 'as thick as thieves', as entirely appropriate.
But even in those days, when Beijing was competing with Moscow for Pyongyang's affections, China was not as uncritical of North Korea as the official media suggested. A senior editor on the China Daily pointed out what the paper never said, that China had failed to invite Kim Jong-il to accompany his father to Beijing. In China, where family connections are so important, there was unease about the world's first communist dynasty.
In the period since March 12, 1993, when Pyongyang declared its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, some observers hoped that China would publicly call on North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
But while Washington rattled sabres, Beijing - as was to be expected - continued with its lips-and-teeth approach. And, judging by the broad agreement reached in Geneva this week on North Korea's nuclear programme, the US seems to have come round to the idea that almost any accord is probably better than none, and that the stakes are too high to risk confrontation.
North Korea has made several tangible gains from the negotiations and offered promises in return. For example, Washington has overcome its inhibitions about rewarding Pyongyang for its suspected nuclear-weapons programme, and is to accede to the North's request for the establishment of liaison offices in each other's capital as a first step towards diplomatic relations.
North Korea, starved of capital because it has defaulted on its bank loans, and bereft of friendly trading partners since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe - and the eclipse of communism in China - also has cause to celebrate the US agreement to ease trade restrictions.
Further, the US will arrange US$4 billion in financing to help North Korea obtain the energy it needs, without producing plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. The US has even, it seems, tried to accommodate North Korean concerns that South Korea should not be the sole supplier of the new technology.
In return, North Korea has agreed to allow inspections of its nuclear sites, to freeze its nuclear programme and to send overseas for processing 8,000 spent fuel rods that contain enough plutonium for up to five bombs. But there is no timetable for this, or for inspections.
'This means that we are living with a country that flouted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and will remain in non-compliance for years,' The New York Times yesterday quoted an atomic energy agency official as saying.
Nonetheless, while the broad agreement does not guarantee peace in our time on the Korean peninsula, it does offer a chance for peace. With or without the presence of nuclear weapons, conflict would be likely to cause enormous loss of life and widespread destruction, despite the idea floated by some hardliners in the US that a clean surgical strike at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility would be feasible.
In the event of war, the North could be expected to launch missile attacks that might turn parts of the South into Chernobyl-style wastelands. And, according to Jeung Young-tai, research fellow at the Research Institute for National Unification, in Seoul, North Korea is believed to possess eight plants for manufacturing chemical-biological weapons.
Writing in the current issue of the East Asian Review, journal of Seoul's Institute for East Asian Studies, Mr Jeung argues that the qualitative superiority of South Korea's weaponry might counter-balance North Korea's quantitative advantage.
The quantitative advantage is clear enough, if South Korea's Defence White Paper 1993-1994, quoted by Mr Jeung, is accurate. It states that South Korea has 1,800 tanks, 1,900 armoured vehicles and 4,500 artillery pieces, while the North has 3,800 tanks, 2,500 armoured vehicles and 10,300 artillery pieces.
With Seoul so vulnerable, few South Koreans could be expected to be willing to put the qualitative advantage to the test. Conversely, North Korean officials presumably watched CNN film from the Gulf War as carefully as anyone, and they would not want to provide another testing ground for American weaponry.
And it is worth bearing in mind that despite the extraordinary personality cults for which Pyongyang is popularly known, North Korea is not led by a bunch of madmen. Former US president Ronald Reagan, in July 1985, referred to outlaw states run by 'the strangest collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals since the Third Reich'.
The 'looney tunes' from Pyongyang appear to have run circles around their American counterparts on the nuclear issue, and the North Korean negotiators must be given some grudging admiration.
Despite the best guesses of the Central Intelligence Agency, there is still some doubt whether North Korea really has a serious nuclear-weapons programme, or whether Pyongyang has been exploiting Western fears in order to win foreign aid and diplomatic recognition, and to find new trading partners, before the regime experiences meltdown following the end of the Cold War.
The North Koreans' best friends in the world these days are the Cubans, which is not of much help, except for those with a sweet tooth. North Korea has parlayed a failure to meet its international commitments into a means of obtaining a US$4 billion energy programme and winning long-sought relations with the US.
Yet everyone could stand to benefit if North Korea joins the international community. China and South Korea are particularly anxious to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Pyongyang regime. The fact North Korea has achieved so much while mourning the man who many foreign observers regarded as the only thing holding the regime together is remarkable.
Kim Jong-il, the new leader, has an opportunity to end his country's pariah status once and for all. Let's hope he takes it.