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U.S. presidential envoy William J. Perry returned from his visit to North Korea last week with the assessment that the North Koreans will “maintain and respect” their 1994 agreement not to develop nuclear weapons. The top government and military officials he met in Pyongyang reportedly pledged to continue participating in peace talks with the United States, South Korea and China and in negotiations aimed at curtailing North Korea’s production and sales of ballistic missiles. In brief remarks read to reporters in Seoul, Mr. Perry summed up his mission as one of “intensive” talks that yielded “valuable insight” into North Korea’s “thinking on key issues.”

He did not go into details, but those short remarks suggested that he sees positive signs in North Korea’s current behavior. It is a judgment that carries some weight. Mr. Perry is a former U.S. secretary of defense, who has been brought in to conduct a comprehensive “policy review” of relations between the U.S. and North Korea. His review is also based on intensive consultations with South Korea and Japan, where he met ranking officials before leaving for Pyongyang; he carried personal letters to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il from U.S. President Bill Clinton, as well as from Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

There are countersigns, however. Mr. Perry was to have delivered those letters to Mr. Kim, but he did not meet with the reclusive North Korean leader. Instead, he handed the letters to Mr. Kim Young Nam, president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. He also met with Kang Sok Ju, the North’s first vice minister of foreign affairs who negotiated the 1994 agreement with the U.S. The significance of Mr. Perry’s evaluative talks with other North Korean leaders are, at the very least, diminished by the fact that his requested meeting with the country’s top leader did not materialize.

Although Mr. Perry’s policy review will not be completed for a few more weeks, the broad outlines of his recommendations can be divined. He will support the existing Agreed Framework that calls for Pyongyang to dismantle its suspected nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors, to be built by an international consortium. In addition, the U.S. will offer to soften and eventually eliminate its trade embargo against the North, and the two countries will move toward full diplomatic relations.

Behind the carrot of cooperation lies the stick of a return to the worst days of the Cold War. The West’s patience is running out. North Korea’s behavior is antagonizing its last supporters. The testing of a ballistic missile last year transformed the Japanese public’s thinking about security. Pyongyang’s unwillingness to even hear Japan’s complaints about reported kidnappings of its citizens rankles; the intrusions by North Korean spy boats this spring only confirmed the view that the North Korean government is intransigent and will do nothing to improve relations with its neighbors.

South Korea remains committed to its sunshine policy, but even it has limits. The economic crisis has constrained the aid that the South can give the North. Pyongyang’s willingness to play fast and loose with contracts and legal commitments will win it no friends. A couple of defaults or other broken deals will oblige even the most willing South Korean company to look elsewhere for business opportunities. Moreover, the international recognition and legitimacy that Pyongyang craves can be conferred only by Washington. Unless relations with the U.S. improve, North Korea will continue to be marginalized.

In the past five years, North Korea has suffered from devastating floods and famine. Although its grain crop last year yielded 3.89 million tons, an increase over 1997, this is still 1 million tons short of providing the minimum amount of food. Without humanitarian food aid, there would have been mass starvation. And with other crises in the world, Pyongyang may discover that its obstinacy has hardened the hearts of many donors.

After Mr. Perry concludes his review, it will be up to Pyongyang to create a real relationship with the U.S. The stakes have never been higher: The U.S. is heading into an election campaign, and policy toward North Korea is sure to become an issue. Hardliners would prefer to turn their backs on the country; if they can beat the president for being soft on an unrepentant communist government, they will not hesitate to do so. Unfortunately, far more is at stake than U.S. domestic politics. Continuing tensions will spill over into relations between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

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