Clinton in North Korea?

Should he or shouldn't he?

For President Clinton, a decision on whether to visit North Korea next month should be made cautiously.

His secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, just ended the first official US visit to this longtime enemy, trying to firm up a promise that the North will reduce its military threat, especially its missile program.

Mr. Clinton now has the opportunity to tack on a North Korea visit to his planned trip to Vietnam in November. He could then enhance his legacy by being the first US president to visit the two countries in which nearly 100,000 US soldiers died fighting the two hottest wars of the misnamed cold war.

Vietnam is clearly living up to its promises to the US, such as locating the remains of missing US soldiers. A presidential visit there will help heal the emotional wounds from that war. But North Korea's promises are a long way from reality, and its history of trickery and terrorism calls for vigilance.

Clinton has done well to engage rather than enrage the North Koreans during years of careful diplomacy. And his support of research into a US missile shield has put international pressure on the North to promise an end to its missile program.

But American presidents should be cautious in how they bestow their presence. Such visits are more than symbolic. They condone and legitimize. They give a green light for aid, trade, and foreign investment. They signal a lessening of military tension.

Any haste for the sake of a presidential legacy may not bring peace, and in fact could backfire.

Clinton already faces criticism for his eagerness to seal a deal on Jerusalem at a Mideast summit in July. It is clear now his failure to prepare the ground and ensure success heightened frustrations that led to violence.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung held a historic summit with the North in June, and later received a Nobel Peace Prize for it. But then the North only increased its military exercises during the summer, despite receiving foreign aid to relieve a famine.

The North's Kim Jong Il, in making his promises, may be counting on a Clinton desire for a legacy. But until he lets outsiders inspect his missile program and withdraws 4,000 pieces of artillery and hundreds of thousands of troops from the border, it's risky to bring this unpredictable nation in from the cold so quickly.

Let deeds not words justify a warm handshake from a US president.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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