The US-North Korea Dance

President Bush began a nonwar against an "evil" state supporter of terror Wednesday. American diplomats began formal talks with North Korea, in sharp contrast to the US military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps it was to reduce any threat of a US preemptive strike against North Korea's nuclear-processing plants that prompted China to force its irascible communist neighbor to come to these six-nation talks in Beijing.

Whatever China's motives, the fact that North Korea conceded to group talks and that the United States holds out some hope of success shows some helpful restraint on both sides.

But so much for form. The heart of the matter is that the US wants an irreversible elimination of Pyongyang's nuclear program through intrusive international inspection, while North Korea wants an ironclad guarantee the US won't attack it first.

The US team at the talks made a small concession by offering to hold direct informal talks with the North's negotiator. Up to now, the US didn't want North Korea to split the US off from regional allies Japan and South Korea, and blackmail it with a nuclear threat to get aid for its famine-racked economy.

Still, the US will and must demand a regional solution, perhaps even a regional security guarantee for North Korea in return for abandoning its nuclear program.

But the North saw in Iraq how the US abandoned inspections in favor of invasion. North Korea realizes that no matter how much it opens its closed society to inspections, the US could suspect a nuclear bomb under every rock.

The US certainly should be suspicious. North Korea's diplomatic history is rife with deception. Only with continuing pressure from its only patron, China, will the North see the futility of throwing Northeast Asia, and perhaps the world, into a dangerous nuclear confrontation.

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