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Trying again with North Korea

By Walt Braun

North Korea’s previous declarations that it would dismantle or suspend its nuclear activities have had all the credibility of a debtor’s promise that the check is in the mail.

Sometimes, however, the check really is in the mail. And who knows, maybe this time North Korea is serious. Certainly it’s worth the trouble to find out.

The least that North Korea’s move, which comes in exchange for food deliveries, does is give the United States and other nations involved in the six-party talks a chance to size up Kim Jong-Un, the twentysomething leader who,  in the wake of the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, in December, is still believed to be consolidating power.

The world doesn’t know quite what to make of young Kim. He might well pursue his father’s destructive policies. Those involved building nuclear weapons capability as well as bolstering the armed forces while doing little to improve the lot —  or even secure an adequate food supply — for ordinary citizens in his rigidly structured society.

If this latest promise is another gimmick, that will be known soon enough. It will be clear if North Korea reneges or stalls on its promise of a moratorium on nuclear activities at Yongbon, and it will be clear if Pyongyang refuses access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In the last five years, North Korea, in violation of previous agreements, performed two nuclear tests, tested missiles and made public a uranium enrichment program designed to help manufacture nuclear weapons. What’s more, since Kim Jong-Il’s death, the regime has expressed plans to continue his policies, including the development of nuclear weapons.

Given that and given North Korea’s history of breaking agreements, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right to describe Pyongyang’s latest move as a “modest first step.” It signals progress but also indicates, as it should, that more than words will be necessary for the six-party talks to resume and for any chance of improved relations between the United States and North Korea.

Secretary Clinton’s declaration that the United States would judge North Korea’s new regime by its actions is fair. It gives that nation’s new leader the opportunity to begin to change direction. What isn’t yet clear is whether he wants to change — and whether others in the regime will allow it.

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