Inevitable Talks

Threats and recriminations from North Korea are nothing new. After every defection, the North issues standard accusations about US or South Korean complicity.

What's new about the recent controversy over the defection to the US of two North Korean diplomats is the highly sensitive context. The two Koreas, Washington, and Beijing have gingerly taken the first steps toward talks that could bring peace to the Korean peninsula, after 44 years of uneasy armistice.

The stakes: greater stability for all of north Asia, economic salvation for famine-gripped North Korea, long-term prospects for reunification.

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North Korea has hinted, however, that the defections of its ambassador to Egypt, Chang Sung Gil, and his brother, a trade official posted in Paris, could endanger all this. Preliminary, agenda-setting talks for the four parties were to have begun Sept. 15.

Adding to the iffy outlook for getting peace talks moving is South Korea's politics. The South holds presidential elections in December, and politicians are leery of groundbreaking diplomatic initiatives.

But the importance of the talks - particularly to North Korea - should prevail. Pyongyang has little choice but to end its state of war and learn economic, agricultural, and perhaps even political modernity from the rest of the world. The talks may not reach the substantive stage until next year, but they will reach it.

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