NORTH KOREA….Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer write in the Washington Post that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il might be more willing to make a nuclear deal than we think:

During a visit we made to Pyongyang in November 2002…we were given a written personal message from Kim to Bush declaring: “If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures non-aggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century.” Further, he declared, “If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.”

We took the message to senior officials at the White House and State Department and urged the administration to follow up on Kim’s initiative, which we have not made public until now. Then deep in secret planning and a campaign of public persuasion for the invasion of Iraq, the administration spurned engagement with North Korea. Kim moved within weeks to expel the inspectors from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reopen the plutonium-producing facilities that had been shut down since 1994 under an agreement negotiated with the Clinton administration.

Gregg and Oberdorfer have made similar arguments before about Kim’s willingness to deal, although the personal note to Bush is a new wrinkle ? as is their veiled implication that it was ignored solely because it would have interfered with the administration’s PR plan for Iraq.

It’s hard to know what to think of all this. Sure, the North Korean regime is unstable and untrustworthy, but on the other hand, they’ve also been pretty consistent in what they want: some kind of nonaggression guarantee from the United States. For reasons that escape me, nonaggression agreements are considered something of a no-no in diplomatic circles ? too reminiscent of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? ? but since we’ve made verbal nonaggression promises to North Korea on numerous occasions, it’s hard to believe we couldn’t find some kind of mutually acceptable way to put it in writing too.

So why not call their bluff and and do it? The upside is pretty significant, and the downside seems pretty much nonexistent. No one would blame us if negotiations failed, and in the worst case we’d just be back where we started. It’s worth trying.

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