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Leading Article: High stakes in Korea, and rewards to match

"The Hermit Kingdom" is the convenient cliche for North Korea, the last remaining country in the world where undiluted Stalinism still reigns. It implies a distant, mysterious place that hides itself away from the world - and perhaps isn't of much consequence for the rest of the world. It may be a secret and secretive place, but the crumbling of this Cold War enclave is of enormous importance.

We know a little - a very little - about what is going on in North Korea. We know that there is famine, because successive harvests have failed. Two years of floods were followed by a year of drought. Doctrinaire mismanagement had already created an economic disaster; now there is a humanitarian catastrophe as well. People are starving to death, probably in large numbers. The only reason that this has not aroused more interest is that television cameras are not thick on the ground in North Korea. It is a reclusive, authoritarian state, and so the scale of the crisis is hard to judge. Western journalists are not, officially, allowed in, though they do sneak in from time to time.

We also know that, after the death of the long-time dictator Kim Il-Sung, there is political instability. The transition to Kim Jong-Il, his son, is slowly proceeding, but in the interim there are indications that all is not well. Instability has once more raised fears of conflict on the peninsula, as a dying regime lashes out. There are two million men under arms on either side of the demilitarised zone that divides North and South; it is a place where war has been an ever-present possibility for four decades.

The good news is that talks start today which could lead to a peace treaty that would at last end the enmity between the two Koreas, and replace the fragile ceasefire that has existed since 1953. The bad news is that we know very little about the intentions and capabilities of North Korea, a state more isolated than any other in the world.

We have more at stake in this than you might imagine. British soldiers fought and died for Korea 40 years ago; if there were to be another war there, then it is more than likely that Britain would again offer troops. The reason is simple. South Korea, the capitalist and democratic part of the peninsula, is of critical importance for the West as a trading partner, investor, and strategic ally in the region. We have a lot tied up in Korea.

The fact that Korea is not understood, not known in Britain should be a source of regret. It is 200 years since the first contacts between Britain and the Koreans, and both sides are celebrating it this year through cultural events and exhibitions. These have made little public impact, partly because people think of the Koreans as a rather strange and distant nation, very alien from our own culture. In fact, the Koreans are a rather jolly bunch, and it is a shame that more people do not know that. Perhaps most importantly, we do a lot of business with South Korea: British firms have recorded huge export growth there over the past few years, and businesses like Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung and LG (Lucky Goldstar) have brought jobs and investment to every part of Britain.

Historically, it has been a reclusive nation, afraid that outside influence would destroy it. It has had to learn, over the centuries, to survive, caught between China and Japan. Occupation by Japan was ended only by the war, which was immediately followed by the civil war that left it divided into warring camps. Rapid growth in the South has transformed it into one of the world's largest and richest economies; stagnation in the North has turned it into one of the world's worst basket cases. The resolution of this strange national dialectic could lead to war; it could, at last, heal the division of the peninsula.

Conflict would threaten not just South Korea, but the fragile peace in East Asia. It would draw in America, China, Japan, and perhaps Russia as well. North Korea may be an economic disaster but it is well armed, and probably has access to at least one nuclear device as well as chemical and biological weapons.

But a lasting settlement in the Korean peninsula also has implications. It may well mean that South Korea draws yet closer to China, and perhaps further away from the US, which has had troops in the South since 1953. It could, eventually, lead to the re-emergence of a united Korea, something that would have implications for Asia similar to those of a united Germany for Europe - a redrawing of the Cold War map.

That is years away. What we can hope for, at the moment, is an easing of tensions; and some help for those in North Korea who have suffered under one of the world's harshest tyrannies. Right now, Britain's position ought to be very clear: we have a powerful self-interest, as well as a humanitarian interest, in ensuring that the Korean peninsula remains relatively stable, while moving towards a peaceful resolution of the half-century division that has so badly hurt the population of the North. We cannot and should not do this by force of arms, or indeed any force; but we can do it by showing that we are willing and able to help the population of the North, and that its interest lies in opening up to that aid, both culturally and economically. Long task, you might say - but very high reward, if we get it right.