Almost everyone working on North Korea in Washington seems to have convinced one another that negotiating with the country is a waste of time. The Obama White House is no exception. Acting on the faulty premise that Pyongyang alone was responsible for the breakdown of six-party talks in 2008, the administration insists that North Korea satisfy a series of preconditions -- including agreeing to a halt to uranium enrichment and nuclear testing -- before returning to the table. Yet, as nuclear envoys from the North and South get together on Wednesday in Beijing, Washington is missing a real opportunity to take the lead in reining in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs by trying diplomatic give-and-take in earnest.
It is an article of faith in Washington that the North cheats on every deal. Granted, Pyongyang's brinksmanship and aggressive bargaining behavior have never made diplomatic give-and-take easy, and they will not now. But that is hardly a reason for Washington to shrink from testing the North's intentions face to face. Indeed, any concessions will prop up the regime, but two decades of isolation and embargo have done little to cause its collapse, or, for that matter, stop its nuclear-arming. The North's internal regimentation and denial of human rights are surely abhorrent, but only engagement can bring about the changes Washington desires, however grudging and gradual they may be.
In fact, since Pyongyang shut down its Yongbyon reactor, it has not been able to generate more plutonium, produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, or conduct the additional missile and nuclear tests it needs to develop its new deliverable warhead and more reliable missiles. But it could do so in 2012. The only way to prevent such a nuclear tsunami is to work from an honest accounting of recent events, exploit Pyongyang's energy needs, and, over the long term, chart a path toward signing a peace treaty.
A brief recounting of historical facts shows that for the better part of two decades, stonewalling the North
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