Thu, 09 Nov 2000

North Korean diplomacy sputters

By Bill Tarrant

SEOUL (Reuters): The pace of diplomacy with the autocratic and unpredictable military regime in North Korea appears to be sputtering, with few real breakthroughs behind the hopeful talk and pageantry.

The risk is the orchestrated approach to North Korea by the United States, Japan and South Korea may founder, leaving an arsenal of doomsday weapons in a country sinking deeper into economic ruin with potential for a catastrophic social implosion.

Bill Clinton will not be dropping by Pyongyang for a presidential visit to a country with whom the United States is still technically at war, and talks in Malaysia last week about North Korea's missile program failed to deliver a deal.

Japan and North Korea are back to square one on normalizing ties. Talks in Beijing last week failed to resolve the tricky issue of 10 Japanese whom Tokyo insists were kidnapped two decades ago by North Korea, which denies any knowledge of them.

Now, North Korea is threatening to cancel a second round of reunions between families torn apart when the two Koreas went to war a half-century ago. It is angry because the South's Red Cross chief made unflattering remarks about its capital Pyongyang.

August's emotional reunions in Pyongyang and Seoul among elderly Koreans divided by the world's most militarized border were one of the few concrete signs of thaw between the erstwhile enemies since June's landmark North-South summit.

So, once again, the multi-front diplomatic battle appears to be on the horns of a perennial North Korea's dilemma: How to open up to the world while maintaining a hermetically sealed society.

Now almost entirely dependent on international charities to feed its 22 million people, Pyongyang needs literally billions of dollars in aid and investment to revive a command economy shattered by the dissolution of the old communist block.

But that means exposing to foreign influences a population programmed to view its leaders as demigods and its would-be benefactors as imperialists with "sinister political aims".

Indeed, a recent editorial in the official party mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun (Workers Daily), warned readers that outside aid was a toxin that could threaten the regime's survival.

"The imperialists' aid is a tool of aggression... a dangerous toxin which brings about poverty, famine and death, not prosperity," the newspaper said.

North Korea has only one card to play, but it's an ace -- the capability of launching long range missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction that could threaten Japan and possibly even the west coast of the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was witness to the power of North Korea's mercurial leader Kim Jong-il on her visit to Pyongyang two weeks ago.

As 100,000 performers staged an extravaganza in May Day Stadium before another 100,00 spectators in full-throated worship on the appearance of the "great leader", the August 1998 launch of the North's Taepodong missile was projected on a giant screen.

Kim, who rules as chairman of the National Defense Commission and whose father Kim Il-sung remains "eternal president", turned to Albright and quipped that it was the first and last launch of the missile, whose test-firing sent shudders through the region.

The subtext of his message: the great dictator has a firm grip on his people and can make this pesky missile business disappear at the wave of a hand.

To some, a Clinton visit to North Korea, before Kim Jong-il comes to Seoul for a return summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, looked at best like a gambit to burnish his foreign policy legacy before leaving office in January.

"A Clinton visit at a time when North Korea has suddenly slowed its engagement with the South would have been a mistake," said Daryl Plunk, senior fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

"The (engagement) process has really gone almost nowhere", since the family reunions in August, he said. "Just a few months down the road and the North Koreans, for whatever reason, have backed away from forward movement at this time."

Little has changed in North Korea since the summit. The North still has most of its 1.1 million man army deployed near the border, backed by 10,000 artillery guns within shooting range of Seoul. Its summer military exercises were the most extensive in years, defense analysts in Seoul said.

"What changes have occurred?", said Lee Jung-hoon, chairman of the International Studies Department at Yonsei University. "They remain strongly fortified as far as the military. Nothing has happened as far as weapons of mass destruction.

"Basically, North Korea is about regime survival," he said.

North Korea will improve ties with the South "to get to a higher level of aid through Japan and United States" and unlock the aid treasure chests at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"North Korea continues to hold the outside world hostage to its missile threat," Lee added. "It's one of the very few leverages it has. "It has brought attention from outside, so why get rid of it."