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Published: Friday, 3/2/2012


Talking to North Korea

North Korea has repeatedly vowed to rein in its nuclear program only to renege, so skepticism is demanded. Still, the Obama Administration is right to try again.

North Korea's announcement that it will suspend nuclear weapons tests, missile launches, and uranium enrichment, and readmit international monitors is a chance to test the intentions of Kim Jong Un, North Korea's new, unknown leader. Washington's agreement to resume food aid is a reasonable price to pay, and will benefit many hungry North Koreans.

After Kim Jong Il died in December, there were concerns that a succession struggle would lead to even more erratic and belligerent behavior. The handover to his son (he is reportedly in his 20s) appears to have gone more smoothly than expected. This deal, negotiated with U.S. diplomats, could be a sign that he is seeking a constructive path, at least for now.

It is, as ever, nearly impossible to know what drives the North Koreans. The government may want to lessen its reliance on China. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. The government may be hoping that U.S. food aid will buy it more willing popular support.

Nuclear inspectors have been barred from the nuclear complex at Yongbyon since 2009. Their return is important to verify that North Korea has suspended uranium enrichment and to confirm that its plutonium-production facilities, shut down in 2007, are still disabled. The site is where North Korea produced enough plutonium for perhaps six to eight bombs.

Republicans predictably criticized the deal, including the food offer. North Korea has a history of diverting food aid to the military and the elite. U.S. officials said they will make that less likely to happen by sending high-protein biscuits, infant formula, and other nutritional supplements rather than rice and grains.

American officials said they will insist on a robust monitoring system for the aid. They need to follow through on that.

Announcements from Washington and Pyongyang made no mention of the bombs North Korea is believed to have in its arsenal. Nor did it speak of North Korea's dangerous exports of missiles and nuclear technology. Those topics must be addressed in subsequent negotiations.

There have been no formal six-party talks since 2008. President Obama has made clear his skepticism about Pyongyang's intentions. But a nuclear-armed North Korea is too dangerous a place to ignore.

-- New York Times

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