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.
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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.
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.