DECONSTRUCTING NORTH KOREA….Does North Korea really want to cut a deal with the U.S.? Frank Gibney, in an LA Times op-ed published today but written a few days ago, says yes:

Most U.S. Korea-watchers believe Kim, despite his bluster, fears his days are numbered. North Korea’s repeated overtures for one-on-one talks with the U.S. were thus not just posturing. To these observers, Pyongyang’s announced intention to demobilize some troops, Kim’s admission of past government-sponsored kidnappings in Japan, even North Korea’s confirmation that it has a secret highly enriched uranium program, seemed more like bargaining chips than belligerence.

Today the Times reports that Gibney seems to have been prophetic:

In its first concession after months of hostility, North Korea on Saturday signaled that it would consider President Bush’s offer of written security assurances in return for dismantling its nuclear program.

….U.S. allies in the region ? particularly South Korea ? believe that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is using the threats out of fear that he could become the target of a preemptive attack such as the one that took place in Iraq this year, and that the United States must offer security guarantees in order for the North Koreans to disarm.

Generally speaking, Americans have a hard time believing that other countries might genuinely be afraid of us. After all, we’re the good guys.

But why do we have such a hard time believing it in this case? Not only have we spent the last 50 years staring across the DMZ at North Korea, but since 9/11 we’ve developed policies deliberately designed to make preemptive action on our part credible, policies designed to make bad actors afraid of us. So why are we so oddly reluctant to believe that a paranoid country like North Korea might be taking us seriously?

We shouldn’t be. I suspect that the North Koreans really are afraid of us, and that their combination of bluster and weird semi-concessions are a result of frightened leaders who don’t really have a clue about how other countries are likely to react to their actions. It’s never wise to take anything the North Koreans say at face value, but Gibney is probably right: they really do want to cut a deal.

One last note: the North Korean statement said they were willing to work on the “principle of simultaneous actions,” which is diplo-speak for a situation in which both sides pretend that they aren’t giving in before the other guy. It’s actually the only feasible way out of this mess, so it’s a promising sign.