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North Korea - Another Flash Point?

Late last week the Clinton administration announced the easing of trade, banking and travel restrictions on North Korea which had been in place since the Korean armistice in 1953. Is this another flash-point in the making? John Howard reports.

The loosening of sanctions came after Pyongyang apparently - I use the word advisedly - backed off on a promise to fire a long-range ballistic missile over Japan, as it did just over a year ago. The Japanese viewed the initial missile "test" as a grave provocation and made it clear that any repetition would have consequences.

Enter Bill Clinton, again, with a deal which the North Koreans could hardly refuse. The deal is this; North Korea agrees not to do what it shouldn't be doing in the first place - threatening its neighbours - and in return Washington will open its bag of goodies.

It's a pattern which began in 1994, when North Korea agreed to abandon a nuclear weapons programme - in return for two modern nuclear-power plants and 500,000 tons of heavy heating oil a year, all for free.

Less than three years later, Pyongyang announced that it was pulling out of talks with the US, China and South Korea - unless it got 100,000 tons of high-quality foodstuffs from Washington.

Clinton anted-up.

Then North Korea demanded - and got - hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for allowing America to look for the remains of US servicemen listed as missing in the Korean war.

It also successfully extorted millions from Seoul to permit the reunification of Korean families seperated by the post-war demilitarised zone (DMZ). Then, Pyongyang demanded - and got - more than $1 billion from the south to allow religious pilgrims to travel north to the DMZ.



Most recently, North Korea successfully extorted hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid from the US to permit neutral inspectors to view a suspected nuclear weapons plant - but only after stalling for months after evidence that bombs were being built first surfaced.

And so it goes. The North Koreans take actions that threaten peace - or offend human decency - and then agree to stop only when the price is right. Even then, it's not clear that they've complied with their own promises.

"We are once again entering the cycle of extortion with North Korea," said House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman. "Ultimately, we have no assurances that North Korea has halted missile development, or its programme for weapons of mass destruction," he said.

North Korea is a destitute nation run by people who feed soldiers while millions of children starve. But Japan and, increasingly, China have made it clear that their patience with Pyongyang is wearing thin.

The containment of North Korea may be the most important regional foreign- policy challenge of our time. But in case you may think this has no relevance to New Zealand - we're just too far away - the missiles they "test" can reach us.

For the future, our politicians are going to need all the wisdom of Solomon, particularly if, as we are told, we will be taking more responsibility for regional and our own defence. Alarmingly, I don't see any New Zealand politician on the horizon with that attribute. Our current crop are too busy sacrificing principle for pragmatism.


ENDS

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