Ask more of North Korea

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Anyone looking this week for clarity or even consistency in the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea would have been perplexed.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the new administration would pick up where the Clinton administration left off, pursuing agreements to halt Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs in exchange for greater U.S. economic aid and improved political relations. But on Wednesday, President Bush, following a White House meeting with South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung, said he is in no hurry to resume talks and that he has doubts about how trustworthy North Korea really is.

Administration explainers say that policy toward North Korea is still under review, which seems obvious from the disparate comments. That the developing policy may be linked to Bush's eagerness to build a national missile shield - a prime rationale for which is a potential, if dubious, threat from North Korea - seems obvious as well.

Two guidelines for a new policy are apparent, and both are sound. Bush seeks reciprocity from North Korea. He wants it to take concrete tension-reducing measures in exchange for the humanitarian and energy aid it gets from the United States. One important step could be a major thinning out of North Korean troops and artillery along the demilitarized zone. And Bush insists on "transparency," meaning Pyongyang must accept verification of any curbs on its weapons programs that it agrees to. It already permits international inspection of the nuclear reactor it shut down in the mid-1990s.

North Korea is suffering from a collapsed economy and a famine that has claimed more than 2 million lives. Yet it remains a master at using bluff and bluster to squeeze material help from the United States and others. Now it ominously hints that it might resume long-range missile tests and restart its nuclear weapons program unless Washington gives it yet more.

The U.S. response should not be provocative or appear to threaten Pyongyang's security. Everyone's interests would be served if self-isolated North Korea becomes a more responsible participant in the international system. At the same time, Washington is right to insist that a sound bilateral relationship must be a two-way street, requiring mutual accommodations and greater openness.

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