Things haven't been getting any better in - or with - North Korea. The country's food crisis persists, threatening its poor and its children. At the same time, a diplomatic crisis threatens to demolish a 1994 agreement with the United States and Japan aimed at removing the North's ability to develop nuclear weapons.
The crises are not unrelated. The famine, brought on largely by government mismanagement of agriculture, can be alleviated by increased aid flows - and, most lastingly, by easing North Korea out of its economic and political cocoon. The 1994 Agreed Framework could open the way for such change. It promised fuel-oil deliveries and help in erecting safer nuclear power plants in exchange for an end to nuclear-weapons development in the North.
Problem is, suspicions on all sides have regularly thwarted progress on the pact. The North, all too characteristically, has gone out of its way to deepen suspicion. In August, it launched a missile that traveled over Japan before crashing into the sea. Recently, North Korea has warned it may launch another rocket, purportedly to boost a satellite into orbit. The implied threat to Japan and to American bases in the region is clear. In the last few days, the North's rhetoric has included threats of "annihilating strikes" against the US should the latter "ignite the train of war."
At the center of the current heated exchanges is an underground North Korean facility detected last fall by US intelligence. Washington said the project had the earmarks of a clandestine nuclear-weapons plant.
The US demanded inspection of the site. Pyongyang's response: Only if you pay us $300 million. Of late, the North has suggested that increased food aid might suffice. The US, which has been shipping food for humanitarian relief anyway, ought to take up that suggestion, offer the increased aid, and negotiate conditions for inspecting the controversial site. The prospect of getting the '94 pact under way again justifies the often frustrating task of attempting reasoned talks with the North Koreans.
Congressional skeptics, who see little reason to do anything that might aid the communist North, have been slow to approve funds for US fuel aid promised by the agreement.
But the alternative to trying to work with the North could be an even more desperate Pyongyang, obsessed with on nuclear capabilities.
Eventually, North Korea must emerge from the darkness of its current system. That process needs to be encouraged so that violent upheaval can be avoided. South Koreans are cautiously exploring reconciliation with their northern cousins. Individual peace missions, like those of Hyundai founder Chung Ju-jung, have increased.
Constructive international diplomacy - stimulated by a fulfilled '94 accord - can strengthen the context for lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.