Peace seekers in the Koreas

Of two pacts made this week by North Korea, watch the one aimed at making peace with the South.

Kim Jong Il once penned a book for journalists that offered such silly advice as "how to keep one's notebook dry during a rainstorm." With North Korea's "Dear Leader" now inking agreements with the US and South Korea, journalists may want a new book that will reveal if Mr. Kim really seeks peace, come rain or come shine.

The separate agreements that Kim endorsed this week look very good on paper, two in particular:

1) North Korea promised to quickly dismantle key portions of its nuclear program and publicly account for all past nuclear activities, including bombs like the one it tested underground a year ago;

2) Kim declared jointly with South Korea's president that a peace treaty should be negotiated soon to end the no-war-no-peace armistice that has kept the Korean Peninsula in its own little cold war for 54 years.

The first agreement will likely receive the most attention in Washington. Legitimate US concerns remain that North Korea might sell nuclear advice and technology to other countries or terrorist groups. In fact, a Sept. 6 Israeli air attack on a building in Syria was reportedly in response to intelligence that North Korea was sharing nuclear know-how with the Arab state.

In this post-9/11 world, the Bush administration has staked a high premium on preventing nuclear proliferation. It coaxed Libya into ending its nuclear ambitions. It invaded Iraq to rid it of weapons that turned out not to exist. And now, with China worried as well about a nuclear-tipped North Korea, the US appears to have won big diplomatic concessions from Kim.

By year-end, the world will know if Kim finally has turned an ideological corner and wants to open up his impoverished, closed society. The first real sign will be if US inspectors can dismantle the reactor at Yongbyon, as called for in the agreement.

But journalists and others need to keep an eye more closely on Kim's promise to cement a permanent peace with the South. His strategy has long been to divide the South from the US – all the better to end the US troop presence and conquer the peninsula.

Trust in Kim's intentions requires that he first give up that goal. But that trust was missing at this week's North-South summit. "We have to make more efforts to further tear down this wall of distrust," said South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, despite new agreements to pour more South Korean investment into the North's flailing economy.

Defense ministers from the two sides first need to reach a detailed agreement on ways to reduce military tensions along their border. Such a peace opening is even more essential as the US turns over more of the defensive posture to South Korea. If the world is seeing a new Kim, the North must deal directly with its southern brother and remove its threatening forces facing the Demilitarized Zone.

The US can hardly make a separate peace with North Korea without the two Koreas first making their own. It's a lesson that applies to another nuclear concern. The US can't really work toward ties with Iran without Iran starting to accept Israel as a peaceful player in the Middle East.

If the US is to end nuclear threats, it will require the primary antagonists in both cases to end their hostile posturing.

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