Leading article: A disarming display of diplomatic engagement

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The Independent Online

The international rehabilitation of North Korea continues at a bewildering pace. Earlier this year Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in return for various economic incentives as part of an international deal. In July, the regime took the first step, by sealing its Yongbyon reactor and inviting United Nations nuclear inspectors back into the country. Now the United States has fulfilled its part of the bargain. Yesterday, Washington removed North Korea from a list of "terrorism-sponsoring states" and lifted economic sanctions. This means that Pyongyang will now be able to obtain low-interest development loans from the World Bank and the IMF.

It all makes quite a contrast with the situation a year ago when conflict with the secretive regime seemed a far more likely prospect than an economic deal. Last July Pyongyang launched a series of long-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. Three months later it conducted its first nuclear test. It was no secret that Pyongyang possessed nuclear weapons. But now it seemed to have the ability to deliver them too. South Korea was, understandably, concerned by the belligerence of its northern neighbour.

But now Seoul is in a positive frame of mind. It welcomed yesterday's move by the United States to ease the sanctions on the North. The prospects for the next round of nuclear talks between the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas are good. Of course, it is premature to believe that North Korea is at last coming in from the cold. The Yongbyon reactor is only one element in the North's nuclear capability. We can expect the paranoid regime to attempt to cling on to as much of its nuclear deterrent as it possibly can. The question of what should happen to North Korea's existing nuclear weapons has not even been broached yet. But the country does seem to be heading down an encouraging path.

The argument that Pyongyang has successfully blackmailed the West and its neighbours with its nuclear capacity seems to be losing its force. The speed with which North Korea has fulfilled its promises under this latest deal suggests that last year's nuclear tests were a sign of desperation from the military regime rather than self-confidence. The recent heavy flooding that has killed hundreds and damaged farms and manufacturing in the North confirms the impression that Pyongyang is operating from a position of relative weakness. At the moment, North Korea needs economic aid more than its nuclear capability.

Another surprising aspect of recent developments is the extent to which the US has been willing to adopt a diplomatic approach to the crisis. When President Bush took power in 2000 he quickly scrapped the moves towards reconciliation with Pyongyang that had been pushed by the previous administration of Bill Clinton. And in 2002, the President infamously labelled North Korea part of the so-called "axis of evil" of rogue states. In those hubristic days, regime-change in Pyongyang was the only acceptable objective in Washington with regard to the Korean peninsula.

Now engagement has been quietly adopted. This is because the unfolding disaster in Iraq has discredited the hawkish Pentagon and strengthened the hand of the State Department, which has always favoured a policy of talking to North Korea. The growing influence of China, which wants the crisis defused peacefully and quickly, is also a major factor in the US reversal. Moreover, there is no appetite for another overseas confrontation among the US public. Engagement is the only show in town and the White House is bowing to reality.

It is welcome that in at least one part of the globe the Bush administration is acting sensibly. The pity is that so much time has been wasted in getting to this point.