Leading article: A reminder of lost opportunities

Click to follow
The Independent Online

North Korea's on-off détente with the rest of the world has suddenly entered a new "on" phase. In the past 48 hours, Pyongyang has surrendered details of its nuclear programme to the International Atomic Energy Agency, heard President Bush announce North Korea's removal from the US list of states sponsoring terrorism, and overseen the demolition of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

We are still far from entering a new age of peace and openness. The nuclear information North Korea has handed over did not include anything about its weapons. The US may no longer regard North Korea as a state sponsoring terrorism, but Mr Bush declined also to lift economic sanctions. And while the tower that was blown up made for spectacular television footage, it was part of a reactor that had been shut down last July.

Nor is it clear precisely where the impetus for the new rapprochement originated. Was it the outcome of patient diplomacy conducted in the framework of the six-party talks , or was it – as Pyongyang's nuclear concessions generally turn out to be – a reflection of the deteriorating food situation? That there may be at least an element of the latter is suggested by the quiet resumption of US food aid deliveries and the recent arrival of a UN team to review food supplies countrywide.

Whatever the reasons, however, North Korea's decision to reconsider its self-imposed isolation is a positive development, as is Mr Bush's speedy and very public response. As Washington may well have calculated, some tangible diplomatic and material rewards for a repentant North Korea could convey a useful message to Iran. And if the administration that conjured up the "axis of evil" is now inclining towards diplomatic solutions and multilateralism, then this is a welcome change, too.

Yet the events of the past week also offer a reminder of time and opportunities lost. In its last year, the Clinton administration encouraged a so-called "sunshine policy" between North and South Korea. The tied US election of 2000 halted the momentum, and new presidents in the US and South Korea shut the process down. Since then, North Korea has become a nuclear power, albeit of a primitive variety, and started to talk from a position of new strength. The chance missed eight years ago should on no account be passed up again.