The positions have ever been the same. North Korea wants assurance that the United States will not attack it and will give it economic aid. We say that it must first give up its nuclear potential and let inspectors in to verify the forfeiture. The makings of an arrangement? Sure.
Instead, at the six-nation conference on East Asian security in Beijing, North Korea again declared its nuclear capability and plans for a test, which could deplete half its reserves. Pique at the United States' stance and paranoia about other nations' seeing the positives in it set the North Koreans off, even though they appear to have had the talks they wanted with us in unofficial side meetings.
In the delicate nuances of diplomacy, this turn of events does not mean the conference - involving also South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, which have leverage with North Korea's eccentric leader, Kim Jong Il - was a dud. They agreed to keep talking, the better to avert a nuclear arms race in East Asia.
Last April, in Beijing, North Korean officials first admitted having nuclear weapons and reprocessing spent fuel rods that they would export unless we talked with them. We had been unwilling to do that, arguing that North Korea's neighbors had a greater stake in its good behavior than we did, and more leverage. The United States also didn't like being bullied.
There is no reason to trust North Korea. In 1994 it agreed to freeze its nuclear program and to admit inspectors. The deal was that both sides would work to replace North Korea's reactors, capable of uranium enrichment, with light-water plants. Then we'd move to normalize relations and provide economic aid.
Last October North Korea acknowledged that it had indeed been operating a clandestine uranium enrichment program to make nuclear weapons. In Beijing, it denied development of a uranium-based nuclear weapon. That leaves plutonium.
North Korea has claimed that President Bush's hard line is motivated by mining interests eager to get at its minerals. Knowing President Bush, that's plausible. But it pales before the prospect of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a poor, unstable nation headed by the likes of Kim Jong Il - a concern preceding the Bush administration.
He is not trustworthy, but the deal negotiated under the Clinton Administration disintegrated in part because Congress wouldn't put up at least a symbolic amount for the new reactors, for which South Korea would pick up most of the tab. That put our trustworthiness into question, too.
The mutual mistrust guarantees slow going. But there is always room for inventiveness. Whether this administration, whose North Korean policy amounts to little more than snarling, can be counted on for imagination and effectiveness seems doubtful. But that's no reason to quit. The talks must continue.