Leading Article: Dangers of an unstable Korea

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The Independent Online
FROM the scenes of grief in Pyongyang this weekend, one would never have guessed that Kim Il Sung, the North Korean dictator who died on Friday, was one of the most pernicious tyrants of the 20th century.

The best thing that can be said about him is that the number of civilians he killed in peacetime never matched the millions reached by Mao, Stalin and Hitler. But he led his country into a disastrous civil war and his economic policies left his people rationed to only two meals a day, while their southern counterparts are fast approaching European standards of living. To stay in power, the so- called 'Great Leader' ran a police state in which radios received only one frequency and individuals were regimented at work and encouraged to inform on their families at home.

As North Koreans realise that the man whose face they wear on their jacket lapels was mortal after all, they will begin to question his legacy. In time, the truth will become clear and the statues of the dictator will be pulled down; but this may take longer than with Stalin or Mao, since the structures of the old Korean regime are so firmly in place and the privilege of independent thought is so alien to its citizens.

While there is an outside chance that the status quo will continue under Kim Jong Il, the departed dictator's middle-aged son, the more likely prospect is of a period of uncertainty in which the North Korean soldiers and diplomats who see how disastrously their country has gone wrong try to reverse the father's mistakes.

This will be profoundly dangerous to the rest of the world, since negotiations between the regime and the United Nations over Pyongyang's secret nuclear programme are at such a sensitive stage. For all his apparent irrationality, Kim Il Sung was at least clearly in charge; his successors, by contrast, may try to use the nuclear issue in a struggle to further their own position in the leadership, with alarming results.

The long-term aim of the international community must be to help North Korea to achieve peaceful reunification with the South - a process that is certain to be stressful, because the North has no assets to contribute to the merger except for its mineral deposits and its people's work ethic, and makes almost nothing that the outside world wants to buy. The still daunting problems of unified Germany show the scale of the task facing South Korea and the need for creative thinking in the Group of Seven industrial nations.

If the nuclear talks are mishandled, though, the issue may be not unification but war. Bill Clinton was therefore right to say nothing disparaging about the late dictator but instead to focus the North's attention on the 8,000 spent fuel rods now cooling in a secret factory north of Pyongyang. The negotiation will require great nerve and skill - but the lives of millions could depend on bringing it to a peaceful conclusion.