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Glimmers of hope

January 20, 2006

NORTH KOREA'S LEADER, Kim Jong Il, just completed a visit to China, ostensibly to learn about openness and economic modernization. Yet the circumstances of the trip reflected Kim's sharp aversion to being open about anything. Even his presence in the country was a tightly guarded secret.

Only after Kim was safely back in North Korea was it publicly revealed that he had been to Beijing. China then broadcast a detailed account of Kim's eight-day inspection of Chinese cities and provinces known for freewheeling capitalism, such as the city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.

Kim could certainly learn a lot from China. The bulk of North Korea's people are desperately poor, barely managing to feed and clothe themselves. Business operations are tightly restricted by the government, which also supervises a thriving trade in the counterfeiting of U.S. dollars, drug trafficking and the selling of nuclear components. China still isn't exactly a paragon of the free market, but it is light years ahead of North Korea.

Kim has behaved so unpredictably in the past that it is hard to know what path lies ahead for his country. Yet it seems unlikely that he is truly interested in following China's example, because market forces can produce unintended consequences.

China's official news coverage of Kim's visit highlighted his extensive contact with each of Beijing's nine senior Politburo members, suggesting that political concerns came first. China's president, Hu Jintao, commented that the "correct choice" for North Korea would be to renew the six-party talks for resolving international concern over Pyongyang's nuclear program; the talks have been at an impasse since November.

With China's prodding, North Korea may now come back to the table, which is rightly an important goal of the Bush administration. Since the talks began in 2003, the U.S. and North Korea have exhibited intransigence. Yet Pyongyang has proved the more erratic negotiator. In September, it agreed to end its nuclear programs in exchange for aid and energy assistance, only to reverse its stance by the end of the day.

Frustrated, the U.S. began to crack down on international banks and companies complicit in North Korea's extensive counterfeiting, drug and nuclear sales. North Korean officials were outraged, calling it a hostile act and promising to boycott the talks.

On Wednesday, the last day that Kim's entourage was in Beijing, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. negotiator in the talks, made an unexpected stop in Beijing and met with his North Korean counterpart. So there are again glimmers of hope that China and the U.S. are, in tiny increments, dragging North Korea in the right direction. That's all you can ask for in any talks involving Kim Jong Il.

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