- - Monday, June 26, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Learning to read social cues that say a red line has been crossed is a valuable skill, and some despots never learn it. Like the abrasive oaf with a reputation as an equal opportunity offender, North Korea has signaled it wants to strike a deal with the United States. Having just sent home a young American visitor with fatal injuries, the regime is in no position to approach the U.S. with anything but an abject apology — and the release of the other three Americans still being held hostage.

The deal-making gambit was opened Wednesday in the form of a query from North Korea’s ambassador to India, Kye Chun-yong, in which he announced Pyongyang would conditionally suspend its nuclear and ballistic missile tests in return for U.S. agreement to bilateral talks. In return, the North Korean despot Kim Jong-un wants American forces to cease its periodic joint exercises with the South Korea military, which he says is a cover for preparation for an invasion of his hermit kingdom. “If our demands are met,” says the ambassador, “we can negotiate in terms of the moratorium of such as weapons testing.”

It would be natural to laugh at such bravado, but North Korea never invites a laugh, not even at Sen. John McCain’s description of Kim Jong-un as “the crazy fat kid.” The treatment of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student imprisoned for taking a poster from his hotel, tells the world everything about the nature of the regime in Pyongyang, and why the West must deal with it as dealing with a venomous serpent.

Under the rule of Mr. Kim since 2012, Pyongyang has labored to build nuclear bombs and is now on the verge of perfecting ballistic missiles with which to deliver them across oceans that would no longer be a barrier. The North has viewed America as an implacable enemy for its role in defending the South during the Korean War more than six decades ago, and for its 28,000-man defensive force ever since, ready to stop another communist invasion. The North’s incessant saber-rattling has prompted President Trump to order a show of force by dispatching Navy battle groups to Asian waters — the likely cause of the crazy fat kid’s feeler for talks.

U.S. consideration of talks should only follow Pyongyang’s immediate release of Americans Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song and Kim Dong-chul, all imprisoned on bogus charges. Realistic chances of some degree of reconciliation are slim. In the early 1990s, the North used bilateral talks with the United States to win heating oil in exchange for agreeing to halt nuclear weapons research. After breaking off the negotiations, North Korea boasted that it played the Americans for fools, with no intention of abandoning its quest for the bomb.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met his Chinese counterpart in Washington last week, telling him in no uncertain terms that the onus is on Beijing to rein the despot. For far too long, China has looked the other way while its client state disrupted the neighborhood. Now that North Korea is brandishing its nuclear weapons at the wider world, Mr. Trump has made clear that if China doesn’t act, he will. For the first time China endorsed the U.S. demand that North Korea should abandon its nuclear-weapons dream. That’s a good first step. China must take the next step.

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