London (CNSNews.com) - Three days before an unprecedented meeting between a top American administration official and North Korea's communist leadership, Britain announced Thursday it will normalize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
The announcement was made by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who is in South Korea with Prime Minister Tony Blair to attend an Asia-European summit.
Since North Korea came into existence half a century ago, the two countries have never had ties.
Cook told the BBC radio Britain hoped the step would help the process of rapprochement between North and South Korea.
He stressed that the establishment of full diplomatic relations did not imply approval of the military regime.
"We have diplomatic relations around the world with governments whose human rights record and other records we have very deep and very real concerns about," he said.
"The advantage of having diplomatic relations is we can have a direct dialogue in which we can raise those concerns and express our deep anxiety about the need for improvement in them."
Cook agreed that the improvement of relations with Europe could lead to the provision of food aid to the North Koreans, but made it clear it would have to benefit the most needy.
"We have got to be careful that, if we are providing food aid, it is getting to the people who really need it - the rural poor and those without power in the system - and doesn't become a means of supporting the military regime."
Asked about the timing, Michael Yahuda, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said Thursday South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung had asked Britain to make the announcement.
Kim, who traveled to Pyongyang last June for a landmark summit with his counterpart, was last week awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts towards reconciliation with the North.
With North Korea opening up to the world and the imminent visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - and possibly even a visit by President Clinton before he leaves office - this was an appropriate time to make the gesture.
"The previous Foreign Office objections are no longer seen to be that pressing," Yahuda said, citing concerns relating to weapons of mass destruction proliferation and support for terrorism.
"Clearly when you have the prospect of [the American visits] and there is a sense in which reconciliation is in the air and you have the North saying they are not going to fire any more missiles for a while, it obviously changes the context.
"There seems to be a general agreement that if engagement is right for China it's right now for North Korea as well."
From Pyongyang's point of view, relations with Britain are seen as important, he said.
"They've normalized relations with Australia, Italy and one or two others. Britain of course is a permanent member of the Security Council. Also, Britain had a fair number of troops who fought in Korea.
"Insofar as the North Koreans are going to join the international community they don't want to have all their eggs in the basket of the United States, as it were."
Yahuda said North Korea was also hoping that, at some future point, the European Union offer aid and investment.
From the EU's perspective, there were also advantages.
"The Europeans have always wanted to be seen to be an independent major player in East Asia, therefore they have to be in on the scene."
But he dismissed the idea that Britain's announcement was made in order to upstage the Albright visit this weekend.
"I don't think so, because Britain and America are such close allies anyway, I don't think they are themselves competitive on something like this.
"Clearly one understands that the American role is the critical one. [But] a major player ... like the European Union would have to be involved with this is they took themselves seriously - never mind if others took them seriously."
While the Europeans were not the "movers and shakers" in the opening up of North Korea, they obviously recognized that they do have a part to play, "and they can't do it just by looking at it from the sidelines from afar," Yahuda added.
North Korea last month asked Britain and eight other European countries to establish diplomatic ties, saying the move would end the "leftover of the Cold War."
Albright, the most senior American official to visit the country, is scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Sunday.
If successful, the visit could lead to the opening of liaison offices in the two countries, and Clinton may visit as early as next month.
North Korea remains on the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring states, and is therefore denied international loans.
See Earlier Story:
North Korea in Diplomatic Recognition Appeal to Europe (21 Sept. 2000)