- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

Did North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il take an express train to Washington this week via Russia? True, that seems rather impossible. But in visiting Russia the North Korean leader took a figurative trip to Washington, communicating with the White House indirectly through the Kremlin. This does sound like reasoning Mr. Kim might use. After all, as an unelected and illegitimate leader of a starving population, any outward show of weakness towards America just might embolden his domestic dissenters. So saving face is a critical priority for Mr. Kim.

In light of these considerations, if the Korean despot is keen to restore communication with Washington, which President Bush suspended after taking office pending a review of North Korean policy, then he must do so surreptitiously. The White House has taken its own opportunity to try to send some of its own messages to Mr. Kim via Moscow. "I think it would be very useful if President Putin and the other Russian leaders would point out to Chairman Kim the importance of resuming discussions with the United States, and that his economy is in a very terrible state, and he has a variety of problems." For his part, Mr. Putin urged Mr. Kim to resume dialogue with South Korea.

Unlike the Clinton administration, the Bush White House appears inclined to give aid to the North Koreans only if, in return, it gets such concrete concessions as the ability to verify the North's compliance with arms agreements. Charles L. Pritchard, a U.S. special envoy for Korean peace talks, for example, told a House panel recently that "the United States is well on its way to delivering 100,000 metric tons of food aid we pledged back in March," while reiterating Mr. Bush's call for verification of existing agreements as well as addressing the troops stationed at the North-South Korean border.

And just to make clear the conditionality of Washington's desire to engage North Korea, Mr. Powell said "I want to keep the ball in their court." While this statement sounds obliging and gracious, it also underscores the fact that, according to the White House, it is up Mr. Kim to show flexibility on missile and nuclear inspections before serious negotiating can begin.

Mr. Kim, meanwhile, made sure to showcase his bravado while in Russia, maintaining that U.S. concerns regarding the North Korean missile threat were "nothing but a lie to hide its intention to dominate other countries." Although this rhetoric makes direct talks between the United States and North Korea seem distant, Mr. Kim is likely trying to test out the new administration to determine how far he can push.

Meanwhile, the White House is correct in its policy of waiting for Mr. Kim to demonstrate a willingness for true negotiation. Mr. Kim may visit Russia as often as he pleases, but he would save time and energy, and win some food aid for his desperate people, if he were to offer Washington concessions on its missile, nuclear programs and troop presence on the border.

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