Arriving at a workable relationship with North Korea is problematic, at best. But what's the alternative?
The North Koreans have made it clear they're given to dangerous brinkmanship. Their lobbing of a ballistic missile over the northern tip of Japan last year still sends shivers through the region. They apparently haven't yet relinquished plans to acquire highly destructive weaponry - US spy photos months ago confirmed an extensive excavation appropriate for an underground nuclear facility.
The North has now agreed to let the US inspect that site. In exchange, Washington will step up food aid.
The Clinton administration is taking some flak for this latest attempt to parley with the North Koreans. Critics assert that Pyongyang has rarely kept its word, and can't be trusted now. The only approach that will work, they say, is military resolve.
Many in Congress agree, and have been slow to fund the aid-for-nuclear shutdown agreement reached five years ago with the North.
The regime in North Korea is indeed unpredictable, often aggressive, and economically decrepit. Its cult-of-personality brand of communism seems to live off crisis. But the US, and South Korea, are right to make the effort to bring the northerners to the table and constrain them through diplomacy.
The US must vigorously carry out its end of the latest bargain - giving the aid and demanding the access to military construction sites it has been promised. That could prove as important to US security as the missile defense plans that are gaining renewed backing in Congress and have been impelled, largely, by North Korea's irresponsible launches.
Diplomatic efforts should go hand in hand with continued military vigilance on the Korean Peninsula. If the North waffles on its inspection agreement, the balance should shift to military alertness. If it proves faithful, the US should respond, perhaps with an offer to ease tight economic sanctions in exchange for further steps away from military confrontation.
Former defense secretary William Perry is about to submit to the president a report on the Korean situation. He is respected on both sides of the aisle in Congress and is well aware of the hazards and opportunities involved in dealing with North Korea. His recommendations should help give clearer definition to a difficult relationship.