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The strains of detente

North Korea may not uphold its disarmament deal. But sending a symphony certainly can't hurt.

December 11, 2007

Symbolism matters in diplomacy, and that's why recent developments in North Korea policy are worth applauding -- softly. President Bush's decision to set aside his loathing and send a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il represents a triumph of practicality over ideology. The New York Philharmonic has accepted an invitation to play in Pyongyang in February, and although serenading the erstwhile enemy is more controversial than writing to him, it's an overture the United States can afford to make. Moreover, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the indefatigable U.S. negotiator with North Korea, paid a visit this month to the Yongbyon nuclear complex. He witnessed the work of an American team that is helping to disable the plant that produced plutonium for North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a joint venture that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

It would be foolish to believe that Kim has made a final, strategic decision to give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for rapprochement with the West. Kim's style has long been to keep his options open until the last possible minute and beyond, and then to renege if he believes it's in his interests to do so. But it would be more foolish not to engage in the slow and difficult process of finding out whether North Korea might in fact be induced to deliver on its historic but still sketchy nuclear disarmament deal.

Last February, Pyongyang vowed to freeze its plutonium program and allow inspections in exchange for fuel oil and related aid. North Korea watchers were understandably skeptical, but the deal held. In October, North Korea again promised to make a full declaration of its nuclear arsenal and materiel to the International Atomic Energy Agency by the end of the year. It was to remind Kim of that commitment that Bush wrote his letter. The North Koreans have hinted that they may not be prepared to disclose all of their nuclear activities by that deadline, while Hill has been stressing that full disclosure means just that.

It remains to be seen whether the habitually secretive Pyongyang will expose and surrender its nuclear jewels, including the truth about what the U.S. believes was a hidden program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear devices, with technical help and centrifuge parts purchased from Pakistan. South Korea is rushing aid to its northern neighbor at a clip that makes the U.S. and Japan nervous. But Hill deserves credit for prodding multiple capitals, including his own, down the ever-perilous path toward nuclear detente. If America's best negotiator thinks sending in a symphony might ease the sting of disclosure and save face for the North Koreans, by all means, let him deploy Beethoven. And Mozart. And Brahms.

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