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Should Obama sign a peace treaty with North Korea?

It's too late to rid the country of nukes, but we can keep its program under control.

By Zhiqun Zhu / July 28, 2009

Lewisburg, Pa.

A rare opportunity has emerged for the United States and North Korea to directly engage in diplomatic dialogue. The Obama administration should quickly and firmly grab it.

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North Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying that "there is a specific and reserved form of dialogue" with the US that can address the nuclear situation.

The statement followed remarks over the weekend by Sin Son-ho, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, who said his government was "not against a dialogue" with Washington. These statements are apparently in response to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's call for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

Secretary Clinton said last week in Thailand that if North Korea agrees to irreversible de-nuclearization, the US will move forward on a package of incentives, including normalizing relations with Pyongyang. Clinton later said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that North Korea won't be "rewarded for half-measures" toward ending its nuclear weapons program.

The willingness on both sides to resume talks is encouraging, but there are major hurdles ahead.

Frankly, it is unrealistic for the US to ask North Korea to give up its nuclear technology. The reason is simple: The nuclear card is the only one North Korea has; it will not easily give it away. The ostrich policy of refusing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state has to be ditched. A solution to the North Korea conundrum must begin with recognizing the fact that North Korea has the ability to produce nuclear weapons and will remain nuclear-capable.

The cold war has not ended on the Korean Peninsula. Regime survival is a top priority for Pyongyang. Depicted as being belligerent and menacing to its neighbors and the US, North Korea retorts that it is the US that has been hostile and provocative.

The impoverished North needs the nuclear program as a bargaining chip. It is also in dire need of energy, which nuclear technology can provide. It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will actually use nuclear weapons against its neighbors or the US – the Communist leaders are fully aware that it would be suicidal.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton took a soft-line policy toward North Korea. He promised millions of dollars in aid, food, oil, and even two nuclear reactors in exchange for denuclearization. President Clinton also sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il.

But Congress never approved the budget for the construction of the two nuclear reactors, there was evidence that North Korea was violating its end of the bargain, and Clinton left office, unable to solve the problem.