Engagement and trade are the ways to foster democracy

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Now there are only three countries with which Britain does not have diplomatic relations: Yugoslavia (relations are expected to be resumed soon), Iraq and Bhutan. In all three cases, the lack of relations was their decision, not ours. North Korea was the only country with which Britain refused to have diplomatic relations. The ending of that peculiar form of national disapproval, announced by the Foreign Secretary yesterday, is a welcome and long-overdue step. It was bound to be criticised by the moral purists who had been encouraged by Robin Cook's former ambition of an ethical foreign policy. The unfortunate implication was that any form of engagement with unsavoury regimes was undesirable.

Now there are only three countries with which Britain does not have diplomatic relations: Yugoslavia (relations are expected to be resumed soon), Iraq and Bhutan. In all three cases, the lack of relations was their decision, not ours. North Korea was the only country with which Britain refused to have diplomatic relations. The ending of that peculiar form of national disapproval, announced by the Foreign Secretary yesterday, is a welcome and long-overdue step. It was bound to be criticised by the moral purists who had been encouraged by Robin Cook's former ambition of an ethical foreign policy. The unfortunate implication was that any form of engagement with unsavoury regimes was undesirable.

That was never sustainable, and was never Mr Cook's intention. Generally speaking, Britain ought to be engaged with regimes with bad records on human rights, such as China, Indonesia and Burma. Dialogue offers the hope of changing minds: with states as with people, refusal to talk is a childish act. Refusing diplomatic recognition was always a pretty meaningless form of sanction in any case. The important issue that needs to be decided, case by case, is whether or not military or economic embargoes should be applied. Full economic sanctions should be used sparingly and with the support of democratic forces in the countries concerned. Burma is probably the most pressing candidate for sanctions, and Mr Cook should be commended for his work to this end. Indeed, this newspaper has argued that the sanctions against Iraq are counter-productive and that Saddam Hussein's tyranny is more likely to be weakened by non-military trade.

This argument also applies to North Korea. The totalitarian regime there rests on an economy that has been sliding backwards almost as fast as the South Korean economy has been growing. As a result, its grip has been undermined, and will be weakened further if the economy and society is opened up to the world. The shedding of ancient ideological hang-ups about Communism should act as a goad, too, to the United States' policy not only towards North Korea, but also toward Cuba - another example of an undemocratic state where the prospect of democracy would only be enhanced by engagement and trade.

The British Government's decision yesterday is the right one. It improves the chances of a prosperous, united, democratic Korea. It also raises the pressure slightly for an end to US hypocrisy on Cuba. It is this kind of pragmatism that truly deserves to be called an ethical foreign policy.

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