Engaging evil

October 01, 2002

WHAT WITH the push to invade Iraq, the Bush administration's move to break a 20-month standoff with another part of the president's "axis of evil" -- by resuming talks later this week with North Korea -- hasn't drawn much fanfare. Nonetheless, it's a positive step for the United States, one that contrasts with the administration's much more aggressive stance toward Iraq.

Both North Korea and Iraq are pariah states given to brinkmanship while building nuclear and chemical threats. The North may be even more dangerous than Iraq right now in that, unlike Iraq, it is believed to possess enough nuclear matter to make two weapons.

A critical difference arguing for engaging the North is its failed Stalinist economy. Unlike Iraq, the North survives not on oil sales but on a mountain of foreign aid. It desperately needs food.

Also unlike Iraq, the North has been sending signals that it wants to negotiate -- signals that even Bush administration hawks couldn't ignore.

There are lots of reasons for skepticism, starting with the contemptible Kim Jong Il, the North's maximum leader, who has a long history of taking one step forward and two back to maintain his grip on power. But even if this renewed effort to talk with the North fails -- leading to more pre-emptive steps -- negotiating is absolutely necessary.

The high-level talks to open Thursday in Pyongyang were to have begun earlier, but were canceled by a deadly naval skirmish between the two Koreas on June 29. Since then, the North has steadily created conditions for renewed talks.

Last month, for example, the North agreed to provide a permanent place for Korean family reunions and rebuild the North-South rail line -- a much-sought link between the South and Russia.

Two weeks ago, when Junichiro Koizumi became the first Japanese prime minister to travel to Pyongyang, the North announced it would extend its voluntary moratorium on missile test firings. It also admitted it had kidnapped about a dozen Japanese years ago, forcing them to teach North Korean spies how to behave like Japanese.

And last Sunday, there was the spectacle of about 300 Northern athletes marching with their Southern peers at the Asian Games' opening, cooperation the North had previously shunned in the South.

Of course, walking with the South is far simpler than negotiating with the United States on weapons of mass destruction. The first U.S. priority has to be verifying the whereabouts of the North's plutonium.

Ironically, the United States' pre-emptive stance toward Iraq may be prodding North Korea to the negotiating table. Talks may no longer be an option with Iraq, but they remain so with the North. And despite much cause for skepticism -- and particularly because of the millions of South Koreans in harm's way -- negotiations should be aggressively pursued.

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