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Toughness and Patience

Five nations will insist that North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions.

August 26, 2003

Expectations should stay low when officials from five nations confront North Korea at talks starting Wednesday in Beijing. Diplomats have passed the word that just getting the North to agree to a date for a future round of talks would be a mark of success. But Pyongyang's mere agreement to three days of negotiations with the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia represents a success for the Bush administration.

North Korea had demanded talks with only the United States. But Washington has rightly insisted that if it has nuclear weapons, it threatens not just the U.S., which has 37,000 troops in South Korea, but all countries in the region. The U.S. has done a good job in persuading the other countries to the wisdom of its position; China has helped by hosting the talks and getting North Korea to attend.

A unified front might persuade Pyongyang of how seriously the other countries regard its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its claim to be reprocessing plutonium that can be used for atomic weapons and its development of highly enriched uranium for nuclear arms -- in violation of its 1994 agreement with the U.S. and South Korea.

The goal of the U.S. and its allies should be at least an initial freeze on Pyongyang's nuclear programs and their eventual scrapping. To get there, the five nations probably will have to offer major economic aid and guarantees not to attack the North.

A Russian diplomat said Monday that he expected no breakthroughs at these talks but was optimistic about eventual success. He noted that it took months of negotiations to secure the 1994 agreement in which North Korea pledged to stop developing nuclear weapons in exchange for fuel oil and nuclear power plants. That's worth remembering. Diplomacy requires patience, even with the nuclear clock ticking loudly.

Intelligence on North Korea is scanty; it is unclear whether Pyongyang has developed nuclear arms, though for more than a decade the consensus has been that it has enough plutonium for one or two weapons. North Korea makes much of its money through counterfeiting, selling drugs and exporting missiles. There's no reason to believe that it would refrain from selling nuclear weapons to the highest bidder, be it another country or a terrorist. That underscores the urgency of these talks.

Washington understands the reluctance of South Korea and China to see a collapse of the despicable regime of Kim Jong Il in the North, causing floods of refugees. Both nations also want the U.S. to rule out using force against Pyongyang.

The best way for them to achieve that goal is to get the Hermit Kingdom to understand that its survival lies not in belligerence and nuclear arms but in giving them up in exchange for neighborly cooperation and economic aid.

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