The courtship of Pyongyang continues. After Britain and Germany expressed interest in opening diplomatic relations with North Korea last weekend, the United States upped the ante with the two-day visit of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. If there is progress in the relationship, Ms. Albright held out the possibility of a visit by President Bill Clinton next month. Progress is to be welcomed — if there are real changes in North Korea’s approach to the world. Thus far, there are not.

North Korea’s leader, Mr. Kim Jong Il, has proven to be a shrewd and skillful player, capturing the world’s attention in a series of deft maneuvers. The summit with his South Korean counterpart, Mr. Kim Dae Jung, was a bold stroke. It has been followed by historic visits by North Korean officials to South Korea and the U.S., and Ms. Albright’s trip to Pyongyang this week. A visit by Mr. Clinton would be a coup.

Given North Korea’s half century of self-imposed isolation, there is understandable enthusiasm about any sign of an opening from the North. But there comes a time when the euphoria wears off and promises have to be kept. That time is now.

During the summit between the two Korean leaders, Mr. Kim Jong Il pledged to go forward with family reunions, economic exchanges and working-level military talks. There has been no progress on these issues. In defense, some say the North is stretched too thin dealing with these many diplomatic initiatives. That may be true, but it also suggests that the West’s logic is backward: It should wait to see proof of Pyongyang’s good faith before those governments rush to North Korea.

Ms. Albright should stick to the same standard. Her two days of meetings were highlighted by six hours of “serious and constructive” talks with Mr. Kim that covered a wide range of issues. Reportedly, Mr. Kim promised to extend a temporary moratorium on ballistic missile launches and may have laid the foundation for a long-term deal on the thorny matter. Although no formal agreements were reached, the dialogue between the two countries will now move to “details and specifics,” with U.S. experts expected in North Korea next week to work out a deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have outlined the eventual agreement during the G8 summit that was held in Okinawa last July. After visiting Pyongyang, he said that Mr. Kim expressed a willingness to forgo missile launches if another country would launch North Korean satellites. In a curious twist, Mr. Kim then said his offer was not serious. Perhaps he has had a change of heart, but reports that the North Korean leader signaled his readiness to deal by joking about missile launches during a gymnastic exhibition leave room for doubt.

Ms. Albright is sensitive to charges that the U.S. is moving too quickly. She tried to sound tough, claiming that she is a longtime student of communist governments, acknowledging that three hours of discussions were not enough to overcome 50 years of silence, and denying that she was wearing rose-colored glasses.

Ms. Albright is also sensitive to the need to move in tandem with South Korea and Japan. She conferred with the governments in Tokyo and Seoul before her trip, and briefed her Japanese and South Korean counterparts on her talks when she returned to Seoul on Wednesday. According to U.S. officials, Ms. Albright told Mr. Kim that the three countries would be moving in tandem.

That is the best way — indeed, the only way — to proceed. Unfortunately, Japan is in a difficult position. The furor that has erupted over Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s comments to British Prime Minister Tony Blair about dealing with North Korea put this country at a disadvantage. The particulars of the controversy — who said what and in what capacity — are not especially important in this context. The uproar is. This unseemly debate suggests the government is in disarray and unable to conduct coherent diplomacy. That will undercut Japanese negotiators when they meet with their North Korean counterparts at the next round of talks that is scheduled to take place next week in Beijing.

A debate over the right approach to North Korea is appropriate. As the world rushes to negotiate with North Korea, such an assessment is more important than ever. Leaders in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington need to compare notes and compare Pyongyang’s deeds with its words. That is the only important measure of rapprochement with Pyongyang.

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