Blinking at North Korea

Are North Korea and the US playing a game of diplomatic chicken over their nuclear standoff?

That appears to be the case as they talk again this week - the third round since August - with China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia at the table nudging them along.

If neither of these two longtime adversaries soften their hard-line positions, each could end up with what it most didn't want.

What North Korea does want is a security guarantee from the US to reduce tensions and allow it to lure skittish foreign investors.

If it can't get a no-first-strike promise and those needed investments, the North runs the risk of a collapse of its badly managed, state-run economy - perhaps even an end to Kim Jong Il's regime.

What President Bush wants, on the other hand, is for North Korea to first give up its nuclear weapons programs before he'll consider a security guarantee or economic aid. But as long as the talks drag on, the North will just continue building those weapons, and possibly export them to terrorists or other states.

From both sides, the prospects of a continuing stalemate could look scary: The US sees loose nukes, while Kim may face domestic upheavals. Is there a way out?

Last week, South Korea proposed a plan that would call for Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear program for six months and put its facilities under international monitoring. In return the North would receive oil and a temporary pledge that it wouldn't be attacked. If those initial compromises go well and trust is built up, then a "more enduring" pledge would be made, while the North's weapons and facilities are dismantled.

The North might bite at the idea of trading weapons for peace and some prosperity, especially if its main patron, China, signs on. The US should be ready to reciprocate.

The chicken game isn't a path to stay on.

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