North Korea: a Cold War link to the age of terror

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The Independent Online

Even if fears that North Korea has performed its first nuclear test prove unfounded, there can be no doubt that the secretive regime of Kim Jong Il presents a dire threat to the East Asian region. Japan and South Korea have an unstable, militaristic power on their doorstep. And it is a power that is believed to have nuclear weapons.

It is vital that the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear programme continue. The visit of the Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell to North Korea now has a greater significance than expected. He must get a satisfactory explanation of what exactly occurred in Yanggang province last Thursday, and extract a commitment that talks will go on, despite the increasingly tense atmosphere. Given the obstructive nature of the regime in Pyongyang, neither will be easy.

North Korea represents a link between the Cold War and the age of global terrorism. It still functions as a totalitarian state, arming itself to the hilt and closing its borders to the world. But its rulers have also shown a willingness to sell armaments for cash, leading to widespread fears that it will one day export nuclear weapons to terrorist groups who will use them against their perceived enemies.

But there is another aspect to the regime's methods. A calculating global blackmailer, it trumpets its nuclear capabilities in order to extract aid in return for shutting down its reactors. It is in North Korea's interest to exaggerate the threat it poses, since it will be taken more seriously. Faced with these tactics, and the regime's cruelty to its own people, some believe it would be better for the West not to negotiate with it. When President Bush put North Korea on his "axis of evil" in 2002, there was even a suggestion that the US might invade.

After Iraq, military action is unlikely, even though North Korea is very obviously more of a threat to the world than Saddam Hussein ever was. North Korea's East Asian neighbours support talks, and their wishes ought to be respected, considering that they are most at risk. Whether a mushroom cloud hangs over Yanggang province or not, Britain must do all it can to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.