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US ends decades of North Korea sanctions

IN ITS most important conciliatory gesture to North Korea in nearly half a century, the US yesterday announced an easing of sanctions, including a virtual normalisation of non-military trade, banking and transport links between the two countries.

In return, according to the White House, Pyongyang has undertaken not to test a new long-range missile capable of reaching US territory in Hawaii and Alaska, as long as the two countries maintain progress towards normal relations.

The announcement follows a tentative agreement reached last week in Berlin. "On the basis of these discussions, it is our understanding that North Korea will continue to refrain from testing long-range missiles of any kind as both sides move towards more normal relations," President Clinton's spokesman said.

In the absence of a peace treaty, North Korea and the US technically remain in a state of war, their forces separated by a demilitarised zone around Panmunjom, scene of the signing on 27 July, 1953 of the armistice ending the three-year Korean conflict.

Since then tensions have frequently flared along the demilitarised zone which serves as frontier between the Communist North and the capitalist South, the most militarised border on the planet. The bulk of the North's army is deployed close to it. On its southern side are stationed 35,000 US troops, their presence a "tripwire" guaranteeing automatic US involvement should Pyongyang go for broke and mount a full invasion of South Korea.

While the resumption of transport links is likely to be largely symbolic, yesterday's measures could involve a start to US imports of goods such as television sets, and might allow North Korea to emerge as a supplier of cheap consumer items to the vast US market.

The ultimate nightmare is that North Korea would acquirea long-range missile capability and nuclear warheads to go with them. The US would win a second Korean war, William Perry, Mr Clinton's personal representative in charge of North Korea policy, judged in a recent report to the President. "But the destruction would be catastrophic. We cannot allow deterrence to weaken."

The agreement also takes some weight off US forces in Asia, now a region of high instability as China and Taiwan square off again, and Indonesia - long Washington's key ally in South East Asia - faces political turbulence and even disintegration.

But doubts remain over whether the North keeps its end of the bargain, especially among Congressional Republicans mindful of 1994, which saw the last partial thaw in relations. Then the US, along with Japan and South Korea and other Western countries, struck a deal whereby the North would drop its military nuclear aspirations, in return for a scheme to replace Pyongyang's plutonium producing reactors with more efficient light water reactors. But reports persist that the North still maintains a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Ben Gilman, chairman of the House international relations committee claimed that lifting sanctions "would provide a long term benefit to the North in exchange for their short term concession of halting missile tests". But John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee argued that these first steps could lead to a fully fledged peace treaty.