Sunday, August 3, 2003

North Korea multi-lateral talks

A welcome sign

It is a welcome development that North Korea apparently has agreed to six-sided talks on dismantling its nuclear weapons program. But we will hold the applause until we see the nuclear processing plants back under seal.

Remember that North Korea agreed to end its program back in 1994. Then last year it announced it was scrapping the agreement, shut down international monitoring equipment and started processing spent fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium.

Still, the announcement last week that the Pyongyang government would sit down to talks with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China is a victory of sorts. Talking is better than not talking and a nuclear-armed North Korea is of grave concern to all nations. North Korea had been insisting on dealing strictly with the United States on the issues. That's because North Korea views the United States as its principal security concern and it wants guarantees that we will never use military force against it.

The Bush administration has correctly insisted that North Korea's armaments are of vital concern to South Korea and nearby Japan, both of which might resort to developing their own nuclear weapons if North Korea has them. China and Russia have always been supportive of North Korea, but they too realize it is not in anyone's interest to allow North Korea to spur a nuclear arms race in Asia.

China, in particular, has played a key role in getting North Korea to sit down, perhaps as soon as September. President Bush told former Chinese President Jiang Zemin last fall that help with North Korea would be a key factor in improving Chinese-American relations.

The United States has about 37,000 troops stationed along South Korea's border with the North. As the analysis on today's Forum cover points out, significant commitments in many other parts of the world are stretching our military capabilities - perhaps to the straining point.

The desire for talks does not mean the United States is softening its stance against one of the points on the so-called "Axis of Evil." Indeed, last week, John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, delivered the administration's point of view in a sharply worked speech that described life under North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il as "a hellish nightmare."

Bolton said Kim was living in a palace, while the people of his country starved.

But the U.S. desire for talks is a pragmatic approach to achieving the goal of defusing North Korea's nuclear program. Talk is always cheap compared to fighting. That's why it usually is a better bargain.

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