Seoul allows struggling Pyongyang small victory in treaty row: North Korea's nuclear stance is seen as smoke screen for its growing problems at home, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

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NORTH KOREA won a small victory in the latest round of nuclear diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, but in the longer term it is cutting its own throat, according to South Korean government officials. Seoul does not see the current crisis over Pyongyang's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty escalating any further, and has cancelled plans to ask for US reinforcements.

'Citizens must be told there is no need to worry about war at the moment,' said Hwang In Sun, the Prime Minister, yesterday, less than a week after US and South Korean forces were put on alert against a possible threat from the north. Tension eased on Wednesday after North Korea agreed to a US proposal for talks.

There are still strong concerns in Washington and elsewhere about the precedent set by North Korea in withdrawing from the 155-member nuclear control treaty, and there is a growing consensus that it already has the means to make a nuclear bomb. But Seoul has resisted pressure to come down hard on Pyongyang, and has done all it can to avoid backing the isolated Communist regime into a corner on the nuclear issue.

Behind the apparent South Korean complacency about the North's nuclear programme lies a finely calculated political judgement concerning the future of the Pyongyang regime. The South Koreans feel the bankrupt economy and monolithic political system in the North is set to collapse, and that Seoul only has to be careful not to provoke the fanatical regime into one last desperate military convulsion.

'They might have got away with something this time,' said Han Sung Joo, the Foreign Minister. 'But in the medium to long term it is a self-defeating strategy. Their isolation will be greater and it will do further damage to their already disastrous economy.' North Korea's economy has contracted since it stopped receiving aid from China and the Soviet Union.

Recently the situation is reported to have become grave, with widespread food shortages. Local party and military officials in the provinces have sent agonised messages back to Pyongyang complaining of empty food warehouses and towns where people are on the verge of starvation.

The economic hardship in North Korea is seen as one of the reasons for the regime's latest manoeuvres: by announcing a threat of invasion by US and South Korean troops, who had been carrying out military exercises anyway, the Communist government could refocus popular discontent against a threat from outside.

The man at the head of this strategy appears to be Kim Jong Il, the son and anointed successor of the veteran Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who is 81. In the past, various sources have suggested that Kim Jong Il, 51 and officially known as the Dear Leader, does not enjoy the same level of support as his father. The withdrawal from the treaty 'is probably related to the political standing of Kim Jong Il,' said Mr Han, a professor of international affairs before he was made Foreign Minister last month.

In the short term the Dear Leader has scored a few points. By withdrawing from the treaty he has deftly extracted Pyongyang from a defensive position where it was refusing to allow international inspections of part of its nuclear programme. Instead Pyongyang is now in an offensive position, where the issue is whether it can be persuaded to rejoin the treaty. And because the US came asking for talks, it can also be construed as a victory over the biggest imperialist enemy of all. 'Kim Jong Il took this opportunity to show he is an able and tough leader and has been able to defeat the US,' said Mr Han.

But in the longer term, according to Mr Han, whether or not North Korea has developed nuclear weapons will be irrelevant. 'What good is a (nuclear) bomb if you have to deal with internal disturbances?'

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