North Korea comes in from the cold

For nearly 60 years, North Korea has put the aim of someday conquering South Korea above the well-being of its people. But by inking a pact Tuesday to shut down its main nuclear facilities, perhaps the regime will now stand down from that risky belligerency.

It helped in bringing North Korea around to this agreement that China and the US teamed up to show what life without access to global markets would be like. Last year, North Korea was effectively denied business with all international financial companies.

The elite in Pyongyang, who prop up the iron-fisted rule of Kim Jong Il, didn't like their sudden drop in lifestyle. Not only did the sanctions strike at the regime's survival, they also sped the flow of poor North Koreans to China.

For years, Beijing has tried to persuade Mr. Kim to follow its market model. When he responded instead with a test of a very small nuclear warhead last October, China decided to allow a money squeeze on its erstwhile ally. Japan and the US led the way, forcing the North back to the six-nation talks and into making concessions. (Beijing wrote the agreement.)

Perhaps now, like Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Kim has decided that being a nuclear power doesn't feed the masses, keep the lights on, or act as a deterrent to economic isolation. (Iran, take note.) South Korea, which is happily plugged into global markets, barely blinked at the bomb test.

To further push North Korea toward becoming a "normal" country, the US agreed to hold talks on opening formal ties and replacing the awkward 1953 truce that ended the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty. That would require the US to take North Korea off a list of states that support terrorism.

Such steps are really more a US concession to China, which has long wanted to simply stabilize the Korean peninsula and avoid a collapse of Kim's regime.

As it has done with agreements since the early 1990s, the North might still cheat on this one, or renege on parts to score points in others. But having seen the dark side of economic sanctions as well as US-China solidarity, it will probably think twice.

Critics say the agreement doesn't rid North Korea of an estimated 8 to 13 nuclear weapons and an alleged uranium-enrichment plant. Instead it only provides a million tons of oil for ending plutonium production at the Yongbyon plant. Those further steps, however, can come with additional carrots and sticks once it is clear North Korea is opening itself to the world. The US still has the clout to bottle up North Korea's global finances.

Merely getting North Korea to keep its word or to admit it has secret nuclear facilities will be seen as an achievement. Only then can it be trusted in future agreements that would reduce its massive military in return for reduced US forces in South Korea. Once it is evident that North Korea is not trying to split the South Korea-US alliance, then it can be a worthy negotiating partner.

More difficult days may lie ahead for the US in putting meat on this agreement. North Korea might wait for a new American president in 2009 as it watches the US debate over the pact. But Kim may have seen that the military option has run its course. North Korea's survival lies in prosperity, not plutonium.

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