Keep talking

October 18, 2002

THE UNITED STATES hardly needed the complications suddenly posed by North Korea's stunning acknowledgment this week that it's had a secret nuclear weapons program. In confronting the North with evidence of this, U.S. diplomats likely never expected an unapologetic admission. Now the quandary is how to respond -- without moving dangerously toward military confrontation, as last threatened in 1994.

Sorting out this sharp curve from a mercurial, failing regime involves the dated Cold War art of reading political tea leaves. The long-term U.S. goal is managing the fall of the North without destabilizing Northeast Asia or harming nearby allies, South Korea and Japan. But the Bush administration has been sharply divided over whether to threaten or engage the North, a division now likely to be exacerbated by the North's nuclear boast.

As a result, the explosive admission from the North may be taken in U.S. quarters as a threatening challenge. But it also could be a perplexing invitation to begin work on a comprehensive deal on weapons of mass destruction, conventional forces, missiles and proliferation -- in exchange for desperately needed aid. After a series of strikingly positive signals from the North this summer, this could be a way, however risky, of raising the ante in its long-running brinkmanship with the West -- a game the United States can only hope will end with dickering over the price and timing of this heinous regime's demise.

At the very least, it's certain that the North wants U.S. attention -- and wants it now, not after the United States sorts out its Iraqi problems. The urgency of continuing negotiations -- not breaking them off -- has increased.

Of course, it can't be discounted that undermining before the world one of the main U.S. arguments for invading Iraq -- that Iraq poses a unique threat -- was intended as a nose-thumbing by the North. But as to action, parallels between Iraq and the North don't hold up.

Unlike oil-rich Iraq, the North is operating from weakness and famine. Unlike Iraq, the North sits dangerously close to two allies that have spent a half-century under the U.S. nuclear shield, Japan and South Korea. And then there's the proximity of China, a major power that does not want a nuclear Korea or U.S. military action nearby.

Heading off the last high point of tension with the North, the Clinton administration traded a nuclear freeze for plans to provide the North with two reactors for power generation. Now, after just the first high-level meeting between the North and the Bush administration, that deal is on shaky ground -- and further talks are threatened.

U.S. envoys are in Beijing right now, seeking cooperation from the Chinese in managing this situation. Japan and South Korea have issued statements, pleading with the North to give up its nuclear program. For the United States right now -- until the North's motives are better discerned -- the best option is to keep talking with the North and, as much as possible, to do so in concert with the South, Japan and China.

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