Diplomatic salvo: LEADING ARTICLE

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In the Korean peninsula order takes the form of armed truce. History dictates that the Stalinist period piece in the North must fall or transmute into something more like a modern pluralist state. But Pyongyang thwarts history. The regime, part oriental despotism, part totalitarian bureaucracy, obeys its own logic. The country is sliding further from the path of development. Floods have left it hungry and debilitated. The response ought to be a softening of its hard diplomatic lines. Yet this week could be one of the tensest in a decade. Soldiers from the North have repeatedly entered the Demilitarised Zone, violating the Armistice which ended the Korean War.

Washington has kept cool. The North cannot mobilise artillery without being observed. Allied forces have at least a day's warning of war. But does the North want armed conflict? There may be a diplomatic rationale - unless it is some half-baked attempt to emulate recent Chinese pressure on Taiwan, for there are national assembly elections in South Korea this week and, as in Taiwan, relations with the Communists are an issue. These military demonstrations may be the diplomatic gesturing of a regime that cannot talk in conventional language. Destroying the armistice may be a scorched-earth policy: If there is no armistice, there has to be a permanent agreement.

What the North Koreans want is the wherewithal to keep the country going, having made minimum political concessions. They seem to want a bilateral treaty with the US that would permit trade and aid to flow to the North. The US has abiding obligations to the South but must also think about north-east Asian security. Dealing with North Korea is like treating a cunning psychopath. But sometimes even psychopaths are worth talking to, provided straitjackets are in place, the windows barred and the guards armed.