PEACEFUL coexistence with North Korea, if obtainable, would reduce world tensions, stabilize East Asia and relieve demands on the U.S. defense budget.
This is suddenly thinkable after the Washington visit of Jo Myong Rok, deputy to that country's hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Il.
The result is an announced reciprocal visit by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to Pyongyang, to discuss a possible visitation by President Clinton. This is the ritual of diplomatic rapprochement.
It would be a byproduct of North Korea's improving relations with South Korea, since their summit in June. The first overtures were made by the democratically elected president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung. The common assessment of Kim Jong Il as an irrational degenerate is under review.
North Korea is a beggar state mired in poverty by its statist economy and Stalinist oppression. It has maintained 600,000 troops and 12,000 long-range artillery pieces within 60 miles of the demilitarized border since the 1953 cease-fire to the Korean War. There has not been a peace treaty.
North Korea already receives money and food from South Korea and nuclear power aid from the United States in return for renouncing nuclear weapons.
Now it is offering, in Jo Myong Rok's words, "a very important political decision to turn the current bilateral relation of confrontation and hostility to a new relationship of friendship and cooperation and goodwill." But only in return for "strong and concrete assurances from the United States for the state sovereignty and territorial integrity" of North Korea.
One of the casualties of an accord would be the argument for a U.S. national missile defense, or at least for its urgency. This had been based on the intelligence estimate of when North Korea will have a long-range ballistic missile. Pyongyang apparently is offering to suspend that development.
North Korea's threat to the peace of East Asia has not ended. But no barrier should be placed to ending it, by this and the next administration, if the overtures from Pyongyang test out as genuine.