Talking with the enemy

August 16, 2002

NORTH KOREA -- surviving on international aid, facing growing political pressures and fearing possible ascendancy of hard-liners in South Korea -- has been reaching out this summer. As always, divining the dangerous regime's motives is more art than science. But in recent weeks, the signals have been such that the Bush administration should risk renewed meetings with the North.

Yesterday in Seoul, more than 100 representatives from the communist anachronism joined their Southern counterparts in an official celebration of the peninsula's liberation from Japanese occupation 57 years ago. This immediately followed a round of resumed reconciliation talks between the half-century combatants -- talks that are to result this fall in more cross-border reunions of Korean families.

Also this week, U.S. and North Korean generals met to discuss ways to reduce the potential for armed conflicts. And the North announced it's going to meet next week with Japan to discuss normalizing relations.

At the same time, recent reports from the North indicate a sudden rash of moves to loosen the reins on its Stalinist economy, dramatically devaluing its currency and raising and decontrolling wages and prices.

Altogether, that's a lot of talk from the elusive North -- and maybe even some movement. Of course, cautions are in order.

The North's economic liberalization likely is less an international entreaty than a sign of desperation. Disappointingly, the latest reconciliation talks didn't lead to a commitment to enter into critical military dialogue. And in these talks, the North may have been mostly trying to influence South Korea's December elections -- in which the ruling party's "sunshine" policy of engaging the North is threatened by hard-liners who would pull back aid to the North.

All this is made even more complex by the lack of clarity in the Bush administration's North Korea policy. The administration, torn between engaging the North and isolating it, may be waiting for stronger signals before resuming bilateral talks -- like the North allowing a long-delayed international accounting of its nuclear material.

But the United States would lose little in meetings with the North now. Atomic inspections may never happen. They're supposed to be traded for building the North two nuclear reactors for power generation. A U.S. official attended a concrete-pouring ceremony at the reactors' site last week, but it's hard to imagine their completion -- because it's hard to envision for now the North yielding the leverage it gets from uncertainty over its nuclear plans.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell informally met his North Korean counterpart July 31 in Brunei, the two sides' first high-level contact in two years. Right after, Mr. Powell said avoiding talks with North Korea could be a costly U.S. mistake. He's right, and the administration should follow suit.

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