The United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations. Technically, they are still at war. That has not stopped them from negotiating important issues, but the lack of an official relationship has complicated already difficult talks. Now, however, the two countries are moving toward reconciliation. It is a welcome development, but one fraught with peril. Washington must not insert itself into the process of intra-Korean reconciliation, and it must ensure that Japan, an ally and diplomatic partner, is not isolated and backed into a corner.

Washington was aglow with warm feelings toward the North this past week during the visit of Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, vice chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission. Marshal Jo, considered the right-hand man of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il, is the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to visit the U.S.; his meetings with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are the highest-level contacts ever between the two countries. His visit, and the reciprocal gestures, were strong signals that the two nations are serious about forging a new relationship.

The visit produced a joint communique, in which both countries pledged to create “a new orientation” in their bilateral relationship and to free themselves from the antagonism of the past. To do that, they promised to maintain diplomatic contacts through a variety of channels and to extend economic ties. North Korea told the U.S. it will not launch long-range missiles as long as the two nations continue talks on missile issues. To move the process forward, Ms. Albright will visit Pyongyang “in the near future” to lay the groundwork for a visit by Mr. Clinton, perhaps as early as next month, when the president travels to Asia for the November summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and a visit to Vietnam.

Finally, there seems to be movement on the all-important issue of North Korean support for terrorism. The North is on the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism, which requires the U.S. to impose sanctions. If Washington removes Pyongyang from the list, North Korea would become eligible for aid, trade and investment. Before Mr. Jo’s visit, the two nations issued a statement in which North Korea said it opposes all forms of terrorism. That is a step, but Pyongyang must do more. The North should extradite Japanese Red Army terrorists who have been granted asylum and make convincing efforts to resolve the fate of Japanese who are suspected to have been kidnapped by North Korean agents.

Mr. Jo said that North Korea was prepared to make “a political decision” and move the relationship from confrontation and hostility toward friendship and cooperation. But North Korea has demands of its own. It wants guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pyongyang has softened its position somewhat, but North Korea still wants the 37,000 U.S. troops withdrawn from South Korea.

The process of accommodation and reconciliation is moving forward. But it is also important to note what is not happening. As Mr. Robert Manning points out in his article on this page, there has been no repositioning or withdrawal of North Korean forces from the Demilitarized Zone. Questions about the country’s chemical, biological and nuclear forces have not been answered. There has been no progress in adopting confidence-building measures. North Korea’s motives remain unclear: The regime wants external support, but it does not appear to want to loosen its iron grip on the country.

There is, moreover, the danger that parallel negotiations will become entangled. The U.S. walks a fine line between the desired rapprochement with North Korea and intrusion into the Korean peace process. Washington’s attempts to move forward must not become bargaining chips that allow Pyongyang to up the ante with Seoul.

The Japanese government has applauded Mr. Jo’s visit and the communique. But there is growing concern that Japan’s failure to keep pace diplomatically with the U.S. and South Korea will leave this country with a settlement that was, to all intents and purposes, negotiated in its behalf. That cannot be allowed to happen. According to Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa, officials from Japan and North Korea are scheduled to meet in Beijing at the end of this month. Normalizing relations between Japan and North Korea will require time, difficult negotiations and compromises on both sides. Mr. Jo’s visit to the U.S. suggests there is no time to lose. That cannot become an excuse for less than vigilant diplomacy, however. Tokyo must work with Washington and Seoul to ensure that their diplomatic momentum does not become a steamroller.

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