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Diplomacy equals optimism over North Korea

If frequent-flier points convert to diplomatic progress, the endless tensions with North Korea might be reduced by a flurry of air travel.

This week, U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, will be in South Korea, China and Japan. His trip and others hint at a return by North Korea to six-party talks that stalled two years ago, when the government in Pyongyang walked away.

After a lethal 2010, in which a North Korean attack in March killed 46 South Korean sailors and the November shelling of Yeonpyeong Island killed two South Korean marines and two citizens, the interest of all parties in talks has spiked.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to North Korea last month as a “private citizen” to hear what the regime of Kim Jong-il had in mind. Richardson reported the cloistered nation was open to the return of international atomic energy inspectors, the sale of spent nuclear fuel rods to South Korea, the creation of a joint military commission and installation of a hotline for emergency contact.

Bosworth’s trip will be followed by a Jan. 14 meeting in Seoul between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the South Korean defense minister.

All of the activity points toward Jan. 19 in Washington, when President Obama welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Obama administration is working the issue hard, prodding China to exert influence on its neighbor, promoting the resumption of talks between South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan and the U.S., and opening bilateral contacts with the North.

North Korea is so reliably erratic one wonders if revelations of enlightened self-interest are possible. China has already absorbed some 300,000 refugees. Each regional crisis is a distraction for a country with global ambitions. Yet China must be convinced the possibility of a unified Korea does not create a military vulnerability.

A month of intense diplomacy might yield historic change. Then again, it’s North Korea.

(The Seattle Times, Jan. 4)
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