Editorial: Don't scare North Korea off a Pyongyang Spring

If policy in the two Koreas starts to shift, the outside world can be more positive, too

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To say that the new leader of North Korea is sending conflicting signals would be an understatement. It is barely three weeks since Pyongyang announced the successful launch of a long-range rocket and called people on to the streets to hail this great national achievement. Yet, as 2012 passed into 2013, we saw Pyongyang celebrate (the Western) New Year with a fireworks display for the first time and the first televised message by a North Korean leader for 19 years. Nor did Kim Jong-un use the occasion simply to wish his fellow countrymen a happy New Year. He spoke of the need to "remove confrontation between the North and the South" and called for the country's scientific successes in space to be replicated in the national economy on Earth.

So is this a country, and a leader, trying to threaten its neighbours or to court them? On the one hand is North Korea's unmonitored nuclear capability, its missile tests (successful and failed) and its intimidating shows of well-drilled unity. On the other is the more modern and human face showed by Kim Jong-un since he succeeded his father just over a year ago – the televised visit to an amusement park, appearances with his wife, and hints of a more normal family life. Which face is real?

The most obvious conclusion is that Pyongyang actually intends to show both faces at once: the more aggressive one to protect itself in the light of what it might well see as its economic vulnerability and general insecurity; the other, more benevolent, to test the temperature for an opening to the big, wide world. And if this dual intention is there, the very worst response would be either to dismiss out of hand what might be a genuine overture or, at the opposite extreme, to embrace it unconditionally, ignoring Pyongyang's dictatorial ways, its unpredictability and its military capacity.

In this respect, it is disappointing that the first response from South Korea today was so dismissive, with the minister responsible for relations with the North describing Mr Kim's message as bland and lacking ground-breaking proposals. It is to be hoped these remarks were designed for domestic consumption, and that Seoul will, after a period of reflection, convey a more positive message in private, perhaps even a conditional readiness to broach a new engagement.

That may not be easy. The mood in the South is marked by wariness after the unprovoked military attacks offshore in 2010, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, and the recent missile launch. But none of this prevented the South's voters from electing Park Geun-hye as the country's next leader, a politician reputed to be more hardline towards the North than her predecessor was, but who also promised to initiate unconditional talks. One interpretation of Mr Kim's New Year address is that it was part of a response to that proposal.

And if it was, and if policy in the two Koreas starts to shift, even fractionally, the rest of the world can afford to sound a little more positive, too. Of course, due caution must be shown towards the North's nuclear intentions and it must be understood that Pyongyang might, once again, just be angling for food aid. But it must also be recognised that economic and political reform – if this mammoth task is what Kim Jong-un has in mind – is fraught with risk for any leader at the best of times, and these are far from being the best of times.

Mr Kim's real intentions need to be explored, and, in the meantime, the outside world should do nothing that would undermine his authority or tempt him to retrench. Any defusing of tension on the Korean peninsula needs Pyongyang to come in from the cold. If it does, the whole region, and the world, stand to benefit.

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