Korean breakthrough?

April 15, 2003

LET'S FIRMLY proffer at the outset that there's no counting on consistency from North Korea -- thus leaving a lot of room for things to go wildly astray. But over the weekend the failed Stalinist state indicated it's willing to end this stage of its standoff with the United States by entering into multilateral talks over its nuclear weapons programs

If so, that's a big concession to the United States, which equated North Korea's prior insistence on bilateral U.S. talks to a platform for blackmail. The shift could vindicate the Bush administration's stance toward the North, which had evolved from internal conflicts to a hard line that seemed to only heighten tensions.

As such, the administration should seize this potential opening and get the North into negotiations with all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union and, of course, South Korea and Japan. The more players, the better.

Given the erratic nature of Kim Jong Il's regime, accounting for any change in its positions is a form of guesswork. But it does appear that he believes the United States has the North in its military sights and that the U.S. military's display of precise power in Iraq made a big impression. The North has stopped, temporarily at least, its military provocations; more than one report, predicated on Mr. Kim's absence from public view for 50 days, had him until recently cowering in a bunker.

Attacking the North would be an entirely different and in some ways more difficult matter than invading Iraq, primarily because Seoul's more than 10 million residents live just a few miles from the North, its thousands of artillery tubes and much of its army, the world's third-largest. So, if Iraq has struck greater fear in Mr. Kim's heart, even more reason to open talks with him.

For such talks to succeed, the United States will still need help from China. And it should be noted that China, along with Russia, last week blocked a potential U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the North's behavior. But several reports say China is fed up with the North's risky behavior and recently showed it by shutting down a key oil pipeline. Russia also recently said it would rethink its opposition to international sanctions if the North went nuclear.

At the same time, there's not all that much doubt about what a solution to the current Korean crisis might look like. In a deal that's been dubbed "the Grand Bargain," the North would give up developing and exporting weapons of mass destruction and allow regular inspections to sufficiently verify that -- and the United States would give the North assurance of its survival and, along with regional players, a steady infusion of economic aid. The goal then would be to use the aid to reform the North's crashed economy -- and ultimately its tyranny.

The path to this bargain still remains, in the words of a South Korean newspaper, "a long and tough tunnel." But if the North, indeed, is signaling a breakthrough, the Bush administration must do everything possible to respond positively.

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