Coaxing Kim

October 21, 2003

THE BUSH administration's shift to offering the new possibility of a multilateral nonaggression pledge to North Korea changes nothing and everything at the same time.

It changes nothing because, one way or another, America - along with the North's four neighbors - would still be asking its maximum leader, Kim Jong Il, to trade away his only bargaining chip: his nuclear threat. Some analysts have properly likened this to trying to coax him into assisted suicide, and it's hard to foresee the dictator willingly choosing that path.

It changes everything because it provides a test of Mr. Kim's intentions. The North has been asking for an assurance that America doesn't want to invade it. And so its response could indicate whether Mr. Kim wants to continue trying to blackmail the United States or resolve this high-stakes standoff. Critically, it also challenges the North's neighbors - China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, increasingly viewed as central to any resolution - to stand firmly with the United States.

As the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, put it yesterday: "If the North Koreans are, in fact, serious about trying to move this process forward, if they are, in fact, serious about having security concerns, then I would think they would welcome an opportunity to talk to their nearest neighbors about the problem."

There's no predicting Mr. Kim's reaction, other than to rely on him to do anything to stay in power. The North yesterday test-fired an anti-ship missile off its eastern coast, predictable military bluster. The first sign may be whether the North pursues more earnestly the six-party talks begun in August in Beijing with the United States and the North's neighbors.

In the end, if the North rebuffs a multilateral pact, American military action against the North - a dangerous option given the proximity to South Korea and Japan - unfortunately hasn't been ruled out. Indeed, administration hawks may see this renewed effort at engagement as a necessary prelude to an attack.

Even so, President Bush's announcement Sunday of the U.S. policy shift was an encouraging step for an administration that had viewed cutting any deals with the North as simply fruitless. The Clinton administration defused the last big North Korean crisis in 1994 with an agreement - on which the North secretly cheated, a mistake that Mr. Bush has been determined not to repeat.

Over the last 18 months, the Bush administration has been criticized, with justice, for its lack of a coherent Korean policy, the product of a deep internal division that may still persist. But in confronting an array of bad options, it lately has been showing patience and some restraint, while not letting the North dictate the terms and tenor of this showdown. In stressing engagement over threats and greater involvement of other East Asian nations, this new offer appears a step in the right direction.

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