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The visit by Mr. James Kelly, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, to Pyongyang yielded no breakthrough in relations between North Korea and the United States. Nonetheless, the two sides are talking and appear committed to a serious dialogue. The U.S., like Japan, should give North Korea a chance to prove that it is ready to normalize relations.

Mr. Kelly’s trip to North Korea was the highest-ranking visit by a U.S. official in the Bush administration. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang in the final months of the Clinton administration, and a visit by President Bill Clinton himself was said to have been in the works. At the time, it seemed that a deal between the two countries was imminent particularly in regard to North Korea’s development and sale of ballistic missiles but George W. Bush’s victory in the 2000 presidential election closed off that avenue.

Mr. Bush came to power with a deep skepticism about the value of engagement with North Korea. He endorsed the “sunshine policy” of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung but his administration then spent the next five months reviewing U.S. policy toward Pyongyang. Although the review concluded by endorsing engagement and declared that the U.S. was willing “to talk anywhere, anytime, without preconditions,” there was no progress. North Korea deserves the blame for this: It demanded that the Bush administration take up where Mr. Clinton had left off. Mr. Bush’s labeling of the North Korean government as part of an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address last January only deepened the wedge between the two countries.

This summer, the U.S. offered to send an envoy to Pyongyang, but Washington withdrew the offer after the June 29 clash between the two Korean navies. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell briefly met his North Korean counterpart Mr. Paek Nam Sun at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in July.

The real impetus for the resumption of talks was last month’s visit to Pyongyang by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Mr. Koizumi’s bold gesture paid real dividends: the surprise admission of North Korean involvement in the abduction of Japanese citizens, an apology by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and a pledge to continue the moratorium on missile testing (scheduled to expire in 2003) and to allow international inspections of the North’s nuclear facilities. Since Japan has every reason to be as skeptical as the U.S. about North Korean intentions, Tokyo’s decision to try engagement made it almost impossible for the U.S. to continue its hard line and hold out.

Mr. Kelly has been close-mouthed about the visit. The meetings themselves were short, the agenda covered the range of U.S. concerns and the exchanges were “frank” and “useful,” explained Mr. Kelly in a brief statement to the press. He has not taken any media questions since leaving Pyongyang, although he has briefed the governments in Seoul and Tokyo on both legs of the trip. Mr. Kelly did not meet Mr. Kim Jong Il; instead he met with Mr. Kim Yong Nam, number two in North Korea and the nominal head of state.

Reportedly, no future meetings have been set but the U.S. is committed to continuing the dialogue. The determining factor will be proof that North Korea is really changing its behavior. Promises alone are not enough: At the historic June 2000 North-South summit, the North Koreans made some 20 promises, only two of which have been honored.

Intriguingly, there are signs that a shift is under way. Mr. Kim’s admissions to Mr. Koizumi is one indicator, but still more important are the commitments to ongoing projects, such as opening road and rail links with South Korea and the resumption of visits between families separated by the Korean War. The North has already adopted some market-oriented reforms, such as letting prices rise to more natural levels, eliminating rations for some key products and compensating individuals according to their production rather than rank. The decision to open a special administrative region on the border with China that would be autonomous and based on capitalist principles could be another important development.

In fact, there is no real alternative to engagement with North Korea. Isolation will not work; North Korea is unpredictable, but the one certainty is that it does not like to be ignored or marginalized. The only questions concern the terms of engagement. Mr. Koizumi’s trip demonstrated that a firm position works: His refusal to push the abductions issue aside forced Pyongyang to admit its past kidnappings. Japan has not bent its principles while stressing the need to pursue a diplomatic solution. Pyongyang has gotten the message apparently the U.S. has as well.

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