FOR THE FIRST time, North Korea has been letting some of its emaciated people watch slices of World Cup action on TV. To draw more hard currency to its two-month Stalinist gymnastic festival -- staged by a cast of merely 100,000 -- the brutal regime also has begun allowing short stays by some Japanese in North Korean homes. Most significant, the hermit kingdom has resumed stalled reconciliation talks with South Korea and signaled it wants to resume negotiating with the United States.
Meanwhile, even after as many as 2 million North Koreans may have starved to death in the 1990s, the country's nutritional deficit may now be worse than ever, with reports of the hungry foraging for grass. Underscoring the growing sense of desperation, North Koreans this year increasingly have been scaling embassy walls in Beijing; these asylum bids are the leading edge of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans illegally in China -- a trickle that could become a human flood, which rattles China enough to undermine its support for its longtime partner.
With a lot of caveats, these unfolding events suggest a greater potential this summer than in recent years for some progress by the United States toward the goal of reducing the North's multiple threats.
When it comes to North Korea, little is simple or certain, and optimism is always risky. This is a dangerous rogue state that could thrust itself before Americans in a hurry. North Korea's mercurial maximum leader, Kim Jong Il, may be just playing more games.
But time is not on the side of the United States; his scientists are suspected of working on a nuclear weapon. Continued stalemate is increasingly hazardous, particularly with the end next year of the North's self-imposed missile-use moratorium and with the looming prospect of the breakup of a Clinton administration deal to provide non-military power reactors if the North allows an accounting of all its nuclear material.
In dickering with the North, Washington has been divided along a spectrum from tough action to gentler bargaining. These options have been complicated by the post-Sept. 11 shift to preventing terrorism in all forms. Now the Bush administration is trying to strike a balance, coupling strong words -- talk of an "axis of evil" that includes the North and of the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against such states -- with more positive entreaties.
This policy, tougher than Mr. Clinton's, has been dubbed "hawkish engagement," and for the moment it seems to be yielding movement. U.S. and North Korean envoys recently met in New York. That was followed last week by a U.S. meeting with South Korea and Japan -- after which there was talk of a new opportunity for "constructive dialogue" with the North. A U.S. diplomat may go to Pyongyang as early as July, perhaps to set up a much higher level aimed at beginning the dicey task of trading concessions.
Advocates of "hawkish engagement" are quick to note that one of its virtues is that -- if the North, as in the past, doesn't show good faith -- it lays the groundwork for building a U.S.-led coalition for punitive, or even military, action against the North. This may be very tempting, particularly for an administration bent on not showing appeasement, but it should only be a last resort. Given Mr. Kim's history, the price of brinkmanship that quickly descends into punishment would first and foremost be paid by the 70 million people on both sides of the Korean divide.