North Korea: Speak Softly And...

The world has reached another delicate moment in its efforts to defuse the threat of North Korea's taking an irrational action that plunges Northeast Asia into crisis. The Clinton Administration is right in trying to allow the isolated, economically desperate North to achieve a "soft landing" rather than attempt to provoke a full-scale economic collapse. The consequences would be incalculable in terms of potential military conflict or mass migration of people.

But Washington has to play its hand carefully. In return for relaxing the U.S. embargo against the North and stepping up food aid, the Administration should secure a commitment from the North to join "normalization" talks with South Korea, the U.S., and China to stop exporting missiles to other rogue states and to end provocative behavior on the tense border between the two Koreas. Hawks in Seoul and Washington suspect that the North is merely attempting to extract economic benefits from a naive Uncle Sam without intending any genuine dialogue with the government of President Kim Young Sam. So President Clinton needs to persuade the South that some economic relaxation is appropriate, and that it's time to seriously explore the North's intentions.

Forcing North Korea over the edge is in nobody's interests. Pyongyang feels the U.S. ought to adhere to a 1994 agreement pledging to "reduce barriers to trade and investment" by easing the embargo. But politics in Seoul and Washington have prevented that from happening to any real degree, and the North feels it has conceded a lot by agreeing to dismantle its nuclear program and gotten little in return. Now the Clinton Administration should seize the opportunity and take the next step.