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A Start With North Korea

January 14, 2003

The U.S. offer of possible energy aid for North Korea if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons development is a realistic starting point for talks between the two countries. It reflects the limited options available to Washington in coming to terms with North Korea and with confusing pronouncements on both sides.

The Bush administration must avoid rewarding Pyongyang for lying about ending its nuclear program, expelling U.N. atomic weapons inspectors and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Giving it more aid than it would have received before admitting to having an atomic weapons program would be a reward; talking about its obligations and providing a vision of a better future if it ended the program would not.

But the United States cannot ignore North Korea's dangerous actions and wait for sanctions and isolation to cause the regime's collapse. China, South Korea and Japan, whose cooperation is needed to pressure the North, are resisting attempts to isolate the regime lest they provoke Pyongyang to start selling other nations even more missiles -- and perhaps weapons of mass destruction -- to get the money it would need to survive.

Washington is better off trying to push Pyongyang back to where it was in 1994, when, in return for energy aid from Washington, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, it shut down a plutonium-based reactor capable of providing material for nuclear weapons. That agreement envisioned eventual improved political and economic relations between the United States and North Korea, which fought a 1950-53 war and never established diplomatic relations.

Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly said in Seoul on Monday that the United States and other countries might provide energy aid to North Korea if it satisfied international concerns about its nuclear weapons development. That should include allowing U.N. inspectors to reenter the country and travel to sites in addition to the Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing facility.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson helped by hosting North Korean diplomats over the weekend at their request in Santa Fe. Richardson, who negotiated with North Korea as U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration, recommended preliminary talks between North Korea and the U.S. set in New York, leading to broader discussions later. That's a good approach.

Russia also appears to have helped by urging North Korea to reverse course and return to the nonproliferation pact, which is designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. offer of possible aid and the North Korean willingness to seek out Richardson as a mediator have reduced tensions somewhat, but talks to push the issue forward should begin soon.

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