World Focus: Game, set and match to North Korea

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The Independent Online

If you were keeping a scorecard of the nuclear brinkmanship between North Korea and the United States, today it would show game, set and match for Pyongyang over the world's only remaining superpower.

The totalitarian state secured a major strategic victory at the weekend over the US, which finally removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist, consigning to history President George Bush's description of Pyongyang as a member of the "Axis of Evil".

The decision goes far beyond the realm of symbolism, however. The delisting, which had long been a prize sought by the reclusive and isolated North Korean regime, opens up trade and financial prospects that had been denied under US sanctions. it also comes after the North Koreans threatened to sabotage a hard-fought agreement secured through six-party talks with the US and its neighbours. it warned it would bar UN weapons inspectors from its partially disabled Yongbyon plant and move to restart its weapons programme, accusing the Americans of reneging on a pledge to delist it as a state sponsor of terror.

The US would doubtless argue that impoverished North Korea needed this deal more than the Americans. But the administration, castigated by the Republican right for yielding to North Korean blackmail yet again, clearly needed a diplomatic success in the dying days of George Bush's presidency. The outgoing President hopes to be able to proclaim that he has left the world a safer place by dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons programme under a strict verification process.

UN monitors were back at work yesterday following the delisting announcement which came after crisis talks between North Korea and the chief US negotiator, Christopher Hill, in Pyongyang, to salvage the nuclear deal.

Now that the issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions appears to have been sorted – at least until the next hiccup in the disarmament timetable – international attention will focus on the fate of the North Korean regime under Kim Jong-Il, its unpredictable dictator who has no clear successor in the Communist dynasty founded by his father, Kim Il Sung. The ruler, 66, disappeared from view in mid-August amid reports that he had undergone brain surgery after suffering a stroke. Yesterday South Korean officials, who obsessively follow developments in the North, were poring over pictures released at the weekend, just before the US announcement.

The first photos of the "Dear Leader" since August showed him inspecting a women's army unit. But experts were puzzled by the lush foliage on the trees on the hillside behind, which raised questions about the date of the pictures. Nor did Kim Jong-Il show any signs of having had his hair displaced by surgery.

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