Welcome Back, Kim Jong Un. Want to Talk?

Do you have a minute or two, Kim Jong Un?

The "Where's Waldo?" speculation over Kim Jong Un's six-week vanishing act -- was he ill? under house arrest? in a cheese coma? -- might have been funny if it hadn't involved the leader of a harsh dictatorship with a 1.2 million-man military, nuclear weapons, and enough firepower to incinerate Seoul within minutes. Now that North Korea's supreme leader has resurfaced, it's time for U.S. and South Korean leaders to sit down and talk with their North Korean counterparts.

Kim has been signaling his interest in engaging with South Korea since his New Year's speech -- an interest that manifested itself in the remarkable high-level delegation that recently visited South Korea. Even after an exchange of naval gunfire and shootdowns of leaflet balloons, the North has maintained its openness to dialogue and called for military-to-military talks on avoiding future such incidents. Despite indications last spring that it would stage a fourth nuclear test, North Korea has so far refrained from doing so.

Yet North Korea is also building up its missile arsenal in alarming ways, developing a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the continental U.S. That's still a ways off, temporally as well as geographically, but no one should doubt that North Korea would very much like to have such a weapon. The logic of deterrence may still obtain, but no U.S. president will want to ask herself if she's willing to trade Los Angeles for Seoul.

South Korea has called North Korea's diplomatic bluff by suggesting a date for the high-level talks that Kim's delegation suggested during its visit. Inter-Korean "trustpolitik," built on the expansion of commercial and social exchanges, offers the best immediate hope for a reduction of tensions. But the key to long-term peace lies in dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang -- which are still, defined loosely, in a state of war.

Any prospect of talks between the U.S. and North Korea, however, is snarled in a Catch-22 that you don't have to be Yossarian to appreciate. U.S. officials acknowledge that Kim is unlikely to give up his regime's nuclear weapons program. At the same time, they insist that the U.S. won't sit down with North Korea until it's willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons program. That's a recipe for deadlock. Meanwhile, notwithstanding decades of sanctions, North Korea continues to amass more weapons of mass destruction, missile by missile, kiloton by kiloton.

The U.S. needs to ditch its "first-give-up-the-nukes" condition for talks and work with its partners in the failed Six-Party Talks (China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) on new ways to advance their shared interest in a stable, non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. That would include not only an unconditional resumption of the talks, but more creative efforts at informal "track two" diplomacy -- preferably involving orchestras, not Dennis Rodman.

At the same time, the U.S. and its negotiating partners also share an interest in better enforcement of existing United Nations sanctions, which seek to retard North Korea's WMD progress, block its conventional arms deals, and prohibit the importation of luxury goods such as British-made yachts, Italian snow groomers and Swiss ski lifts. The U.S. also needs to build a strong consensus with its partners on what new sanctions they will impose, either jointly or unilaterally, when North Korea commits its next violation of the various Security Council resolutions directed against it, as it will.

To adapt an old Cold War adage, U.S. negotiators must "distrust, but verify." First, though, they have to be willing just to sit down and talk.

--Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net