Cornering North Korea

President Bush proposed this week that the US, as well as the five nations around North Korea, offer a guarantee to the North it will never be attacked if it dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

Long fearful of a US attack, North Korea received such a guarantee from President Clinton, but that was before the North began to cheat on a 1991 agreement not to build nuclear weapons. Such deceit drove Mr. Bush to insist that any new guarantee come as a joint offer by China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the US - not bilaterally, but in multilateral talks already begun with North Korea.

The prospect that the hermit-like regime of Kim Jong Il will open the country to foreign inspectors appears slim. Yet verifying that North Korea has eliminated any nuclear bombs, or that it is still building them, is necessary before any guarantee takes hold.

Bush is relying heavily on China to to bring the North around. Beijing has a strong interest in a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula (and a nonnuclear Japan), and may also use these talks to persuade the US not to set up a missile-defense shield in Asia.

Despite the North's threat that it has a bomb, Bush's offer shows he prefers patience, and has confidence that the North's neighbors won't let it become a danger to the world.

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