UK joins rush to be friends with North Korea

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Britain joined the race to open up North Korea yesterday when the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced that diplomatic relations would soon be established between London and the hardline Stalinist government in Pyongyang.

Britain joined the race to open up North Korea yesterday when the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced that diplomatic relations would soon be established between London and the hardline Stalinist government in Pyongyang.

"We have now received an approach from North Korea to open diplomatic relations," Mr Cook said, as he flew with Tony Blair to a meeting of European and Asian leaders in the South Korean capital, Seoul. "We intend to give a positive response."

Officials in the British delegation said that by the end of the year the two countries would grant formal recognition to one another's envoys. The British ambassador to Pyongyang will initially be based in Peking, but new embassies are likely to be opened in London and North Korea next year.

The British announcement comes at a time of unprecedented diplomatic activity between the two Koreas, their Cold War sponsors, China and the United States, and other interested parties such as Japan, Russia and the European Union. For 50 years, North Korea was a diplomatic dead zone, a relic of the Cold War that lasted long after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the introduction of free-market reforms in China. But in the space of four months, it has been transformed.

Since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an inconclusive armistice, the capitalist South and the North have faced one another across the demilitarised zone (DMZ), a mine-strewn frontier defended by two of the biggest armies in the world. Armed confrontations have been frequent, and, as recently as last year, rival warships exchanged fire in a naval encounter.

In 1994, the suspicion that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons precipitated a crisis that almost led to war. But everything changedin June when President Kim Dae Jung, of South Korea, and the leader of the North, Kim Jong Il, met for the first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang.

Since then, the two sides have held repeated meetings to reduce tension, plan thereopening of the railway across the DMZ, and reunite relatives separated by the Korean War. Last week Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in bringing about the rapprochement.

Disarmament and reunification of the divided peninsula are years, or even decades, away. But the coming together of the two Koreas has reverberated around the international community.

A reunited Korea would alter the balance of power and the already uneasy relationships between China, America and Japan. On Sunday, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will visit Pyongyang to discuss a proposed visit by President Bill Clinton next month, and, in Peking, rumours are circulating about an imminent visit by President Jiang Zemin. Japan recently released 500 million tonnes of rice aid for victims of North Korea's persistent famine.

Yesterday, the leaders of the EU countries began arriving in Seoul, many eager for a part in President Kim's success. Austria, Finland, Italy, and Portugal have all established diplomatic ties with the North Korean government, although only Sweden actually has an embassy in Pyongyang. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also said Germany would establish diplomatic relations.

Britain has recognised the North as a state since 1949, but has not had a diplomatic presence since fighting on the South Korean side in the war. Mr Cook said: "The opening of diplomatic relations is not in any way an approval of the conduct of the regime. But it may well be helpful in resolving one of the big problems of North Korea's relations with the rest of the world, which is the strong tension between it and South Korea."

Until very recently, British officials said they preferred a cautious approach to engaging Pyongyang, holding out diplomatic ties as "a carrot" with which the North Koreans could be coaxed into greater engagement with the outside world. Then in September a number of European governments received letters from the North Korean Foreign Minister, Paek Nam Sun, requesting diplomatic relations. Last week, Vice-Marshal Jo Myong Rok, North Korea's senior army officer, visited Washington and shook hands with Mr Clinton.

On a practical level, North Korean rehabilitation is likely to be a hugely expensive project. The North has an agricultural system incapable of feeding its people - up to 2 million are believed to have died of starvation - and the country is dependent on overseas food aid.

Mr Cook said: "We have got to be careful that, if we are providing food aid, it is getting to the people who really need it ... and doesn't become a means of supporting the military regime."