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Published: Friday, 1/26/2007

Engaging North Korea

IN THE finest tradition of international diplomacy, senior U.S. representatives met with senior North Korean representatives last week in Berlin, a neutral capital, a meeting that was noteworthy because the Bush Administration had sworn that it would not give North Korea the satisfaction of accepting direct, bilateral discussions.

The administration position was that to do so would be to give in to North Korean blackmail, carried out by continuing to give the impression it was ratcheting up its nuclear program.

The administration, instead, had continued to insist that six-power talks, to include the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia, were the only way to go with the bad boys of Pyongyang.

Apart from trying to use the neighbors to gang up on North Korea, there was also the general idea that seems to be fixed in the head of the Bush Administration, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the lead, that a country should deserve to talk with the United States before Washington agrees to such talks.

On that basis, not only North Korea, but also Iran, Syria, and Cuba have been pretty much excluded from elbow-to-elbow talks with senior American representatives. The Bush Administration also doesn't talk with Hamas among the Palestinians, nor Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The problem with that approach is that those, in fact, are the very countries and parties with which the United States has serious problems - issues that might be helped by direct talks.

The North Koreans called the Americans' hand by making it clear in December that the six-power talks weren't going any further, in spite of at least symbolic pushing and shoving by the Chinese. At that point, the Bush Administration made the commendable decision to sit down with them, led by the senior negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill. The North Korean side was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.

The new approach has begun to pay off. Some useful discussion that lasted two days took place on a range of subjects. The North Koreans agreed to a resumption of the six-power talks in Beijing. There seems to have been smiles all around, not least of all on the part of the Germans, who provided the venue for the parlay.

Now, if only the Bush Administration could see the light and do likewise with other until-now forbidden interlocutors.

It could still take the counsel of the Iraq Study Group and talk with the Syrians and the Iranians. Even the most recalcitrant members of the administration would have to admit that those two countries probably would have something significant to say about the mess in Iraq.

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