[OUTLOOK]North Korea Talks Promising - to a Point

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[OUTLOOK]North Korea Talks Promising - to a Point

It is fortunate that South and North Korea sat at the negotiation table at such a tense moment in history, a moment when the United States has proclaimed an all-out "war" against terrorism. Washington declared that it would punish any powers bearing any connection to the terrorist acts. With a certain dread, we might ask what would happen if the United States placed North Korea, which is branded a terrorist-supporting country and a "rogue state," under the same category as the Islamic countries hostile to America, and the North reacted against such U.S. move?

In that case, foreign investors, who still regard the Korean Peninsula as a region in danger of war, would withdraw from the Korean market or go to the sidelines. Then, the Korean economy would totter in much the same way as it did during the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis. In addition, how anxious would the parents whose sons are serving in the army feel?

From all this speculation, it seems certain that Seoul's consistent engagement policy toward North Korea served as an important contributing factor at this critical juncture.

During the inter-Korean ministerial talks that ended Tuesday, following a six-month suspension of dialogue, the North Korean side showed a change in attitude. The speech and behavior of the delegation from Pyongyang, which was composed of a new generation of officials, was more flexible than that of past delegations. Two of the 11 agenda items North Korea proposed - electricity aid and the return of more prisoners who have refused to denounce the North's ideology - could lead to controversy. But five proposals, including the restoration of the inter-Korean Kyongui Railway, were in accordance with Seoul's goals. Other Pyongyang proposals were also acceptable, and the dialogue was promising.

Those advances were appreciated as part of North Korea's negotiating strategies. But there are still uneasiness over the existence of other annoying matters hidden underneath: Pyongyang's unilateral postponement of cabinet talks, scheduled to take place last March 13, was disappointing. Moreover, even if the two Koreas were to have reached agreement in these talks, North Korea might still present obstacles. Thus, our distrust of North Korea remains high.

However, what is more important is that North Korea will enjoy no gains if it plans to impede the pace of progress. Pyongyang's amicable negotiations with Washington progressed nearly to the final stages during the Clinton administration. If North Korea had hurried to reach an agreement, the negotiations would not have had to revert to the starting point after a new U.S. government took power. This is the view that key U.S. officials involved in the negotiations share. What is also maintained is that North Korea could have normalized its relations with Japan and made a breakthrough toward alleviating the hard situation besetting the country, based on the success of its negotiations with Washington.

What would have transpired with an earlier inter-Korean summit? What would the situation have been if the North had tried to accelerate improvements in inter-Korean relations rather than freezing them for six months after the Bush administration took power? Though it is meaningless to delve into what is already history, we contend something was missing.

The leadership of North Korea should also face up to a grim reality. The North will reach its limits soon if it continues to insist on closing and isolating itself, and of prolonging the country's current situation, which has made it dependent on donations from foreign countries. There is no country, except South Korea, that can sincerely help the North overcome its difficulties. From China, which is carrying on rapid industrialization, and Russia, which is going a new way but still struggling with the aftermath of communism's failure, the leadership of North Korea can learn of the rapid change of events.

North Korea should not waste any more time. The country should give up its bad habit of delaying the implementation of agreements. A wrong choice by any one of the Koreas could result in great failure for the Korean people. We want nothing more than the North Korean leadership to act sensibly.


The writer is an editorial Writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Byung-ho

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