North Korea's frigid response to the Bush administration's offer to resume longstanding talks was consistent and predictable. A foreign ministry spokesman complained that Washington was "unilaterally" trying to set the agenda. It cast doubt on U.S. sincerity in wanting to improve relations and warned that North Korea might resume its nuclear weapons program if it wasn't compensated for the delay in providing it with newer and safer nuclear plants. It was the usual combination of indignation, threats and demands that in the past often got Pyongyang what it wanted. This time it's unlikely the ploy will work.
President Bush's approach is clear and correct. He wants to reduce tensions and the threat of renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula and encourage more responsible North Korean behavior in international affairs. He is ready to offer increased aid and trade and an easing of half-century-old sanctions to help rescue North Korea from the humanitarian and economic calamities its Stalinist rulers have brought about.
In exchange he wants Pyongyang to abandon its long-range missile program and exports of missile technology, abide by the International Energy Agency's nuclear safeguards and--most easily achievable as a confidence-building measure--reduce its swollen military forces. North Korea keeps about 1.1 million men under arms, an extraordinarily high percentage in a population of 21 million. About 70% of its army is positioned close to the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, along with thousands of artillery pieces zeroed in on Seoul. Thinning out these forces would be an unmistakable signal that Pyongyang wants to reduce tensions.
Last year South Korean President Kim Dae Jung made what was universally hailed as a breakthrough visit to the North, where he and Communist leader Kim Jong Il joined hands and proclaimed a new era in Korean history. But Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of providing aid and investments to the North in hopes of achieving detente and eventual reconciliation has gone largely unreciprocated. Kim Jong Il has yet to make his promised visit to the South or otherwise signal any major change of attitude, and popular backing for the sunshine policy among South Koreans has plunged.
North Korea, holding a very weak hand, has gained much in the last six years by adroitly exploiting fear of its embryonic nuclear program. The Bush administration is offering Kim Jong Il a chance to gain a lot more, but only if he agrees to concrete steps to reduce tensions. That responsible approach now awaits a responsible answer.