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North Korea: More Give, Less Take

November 12, 2000

President Clinton has properly decided not to visit North Korea when he travels to Asia later this month, though the White House says he might still make such a visit before he leaves office Jan. 20. Clinton should forget about that one as well, because Washington's nascent relationship with the world's last Stalinist state isn't remotely near the point of meriting such a high-prestige trip, even by a lame-duck president.

U.S. diplomacy is rightly concerned with making Northeast Asia a safer place, but North Korea has yet to demonstrate that it shares that goal. Until it does, Washington should be sparing in the material inducements and political rewards it hands out to North Korea.

The next administration should give high priority to a reassessment of North Korean policy. Since 1994 the United States, along with South Korea and Japan, has given billions of dollars in energy and food aid to North Korea and done much to legitimate a longtime international pariah. The return on that investment has been meager: The North did agree to shut down facilities capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel. But North Korea, one of 187 countries committed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, still refuses to let international inspectors verify that it's not developing nuclear weapons. Before it froze its nuclear program, the Pyongyang regime is believed to have accumulated enough plutonium to make two bombs.

Washington's approach to Pyongyang has been shaped in good part by fear of what it might do with those potential weapons. The conventional belief for years was that reclusive North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and his successor and son, Kim Jong Il, might be mentally unstable and driven one day to launch a devastating if suicidal war. Kim Jong Il's recent meetings with foreign officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, have produced a far different impression. Kim is now seen as a shrewd and well-informed leader. His tactical skills are evident in the huge amounts of aid he has been able to extract from the United States and other donor nations while giving little in return.

This absurdly unbalanced relationship has to end. The next president should seek three minimum concessions from Pyongyang: to give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to its nuclear facilities, enter into a verifiable agreement to curb its missile development and export programs, and reduce its enormous military presence near its border with South Korea. If those things are done, it should be possible to start believing that Pyongyang really may be interested in a stable and peaceful Northeast Asia.

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