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Easing the Line on N. Korea

September 30, 2002

After including North Korea in his controversial "axis of evil," President Bush is backing away from his confrontational course and displaying some welcome flexibility.

Senior State Department official James A. Kelly's trip to North Korea early next month should offer both sides a chance to ease tensions. North Korea's economic woes are forcing its leader, Kim Jong Il, to embrace reforms.

The U.S. should seize the opportunity to probe the sincerity of the rogue regime's commitment to becoming a responsible state.

The U.S. shift follows Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's productive visit to North Korea, which resulted in an agreement to resume normalization talks in October. Japan is urging the U.S. to reach out to North Korea, and South Korea is even more eager to see that happen. South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, has sought to promote normal relations with the North and reduce political tensions. With the disappearance of the Berlin Wall, the razor wire-topped chain-link fence dividing Korea has become a historical anachronism, an ugly vestige of the Cold War.

Washington's main focus will be slowing North Korean weapons proliferation and compelling its compliance with an agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration. That 1994 pact froze North Korea's nuclear programs in return for desperately needed American aid.

For his part, Kim Jong Il is looking for the U.S. to support the creation in his country of a trade and investment zone--with Japan, Russia, China and South Korea as partners. He knows that will happen only if he gives the U.S. real reasons to stop viewing his nation as a pariah.

Kelly's trip is an encouraging sign. Just because the Clinton administration tried to reach out to North Korea doesn't mean that it's a bad idea. The Bush administration is beginning to get this, to understand that talking to the North is better than dismissing it as evil and then ignoring it.

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