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Let's try to make a deal

Negotiating with North Korea is always a risky proposition, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

February 12, 2007

THE LATEST INTERNATIONAL effort to get North Korea to end its nuclear programs enters its final day today on a discouraging note. After an 18-month stalemate and a North Korean nuclear weapon test, U.S. officials are once again struggling to reach a deal with Pyongyang. Yet even if they did, the erratic regime's history would require that any deal be treated with skepticism. And whatever its details, one thing that a deal most assuredly will not be is a solution.

That's because any solution to the North Korean nuclear problem must include an agreement by Pyongyang to place its plutonium -- whether two or 12 bombs' worth -- under international safeguards. Once cameras are focused on the material, and inspectors are checking for hidden stockpiles of plutonium or uranium, real engagement with the North Koreans can begin.

The question, of course and as always, is how to get there from here. For all its bluster, the Bush administration got nowhere with Pyongyang until it froze some accounts in a previously obscure bank in Macao -- accounts believed to be North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's private slush fund. It was the financial sleuths at the Treasury Department and in the intelligence community, not the hard-liners at the State Department and the Pentagon, who finally brought Kim back to the table.

Once there, the North Koreans appear to have reverted to their usual preposterous demands. Giving up the plutonium stockpiles they already have, or the enriched uranium program they once acknowledged but now deny, is not now up for negotiation. Instead, in exchange for freezing the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, they reportedly want 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil -- four times the amount that the U.S. supplied under a deal during the Clinton administration.

This is an offer the U.S. must refuse -- even at the cost of walking away from the talks empty-handed. On the other hand, it would be self-defeating for the U.S. to continue to insist that no concessions whatsoever can be made to Pyongyang until it unilaterally dismantles its nuclear program. Kim has every reason to doubt the Bush administration's declaration that it has "no hostile intent." And it's not just the president. There is bipartisan hostility in Washington to Kim's heinous regime. But it's hard to envision a scenario for overthrowing him that doesn't also involve the incineration of Seoul.

The United States, and the world, have lived with a dangerous North Korea for half a century and a dangerously unstable North Korea for more than a decade. What the world cannot live with is a dangerously unstable nuclear North Korea. So a true disarmament deal must be eventually struck. And if a taste of fuel oil, like a swig of Kim's favorite cognac, can begin the cycle of mutual concessions that will be required, then the wisest course may be to pour just enough -- and not a drop more -- to keep the North Koreans at the table.

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