A series of meetings provide reasons for cautious optimism regarding negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. The prospect of substantial assistance from the South to the North permitted the resumption of long-stalled inter-Korean talks, while the United States and North Korea had a direct encounter in New York City to clarify positions. Neither meeting yielded a breakthrough — that is too much to ask — but there are signs that dialogue will continue and might lead to a resumption of the six-party talks, which have not been held since last summer.

Discussions between North and South Korea have been on hold for 10 months. The North quit them in protest when Seoul airlifted some 460 North Korean defectors who had reached Vietnam. The worsening agricultural situation in the North obliged Pyongyang to swallow its pride and request new talks and 500,000 tons of fertilizer and rice.

According to the World Food Program, which feeds more than a quarter of the North’s 23 million people, food aid is running perilously low. Without donations, “only 12,000 kids in orphanages and hospitals will be getting cereals.” In return for the aid, the South wanted a commitment to return to the multilateral six-party talks, which have been in abeyance for nearly a year. The North would not go that far.

After three days of difficult discussion — one more than originally scheduled — the joint statement released after the meeting said the two sides would try to work toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. For that, the South agreed to provide 200,000 tons of fertilizer.

The North also agreed to a ministerial dialogue in June when the two sides meet for joint celebrations of the fifth anniversary of the June 15 summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and his North Korean counterpart, Mr. Kim Jong Il. At that meeting, the South will be pressed to provide the remaining 300,000 tons of aid. In return, Seoul’s negotiators will urge Pyongyang to resume the six-party talks.

As an incentive, South Korea is now promising a “Marshall Aid”-type plan if the North gives up its nuclear-weapons program. The prospect of a meeting with North Korea’s Mr. Kim may be enough to sway the South Korean delegation, especially if it is headed by Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young, who hopes to succeed Mr. Roh Moo Hyun as president. That sort of publicity would do wonders for his candidacy.

The change in tone from the two Koreas is not by itself enough to warrant optimism. At the same time, though, U.S. and North Korean officials have held the first face-to-face meeting between the two governments in five months. Although the U.S. merely wanted to “clarify” its position, it, along with the South Korean discussions, could be enough to jump-start the stalled negotiations.

The meetings come amid a background of rising concern about a North Korean nuclear test and reports that the North has begun reprocessing nuclear fuel from its reactors. Other parties to the six-party talks, in particular South Korea and China, have been urging the U.S. to show more flexibility to lure Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement that the U.S. respects North Korea’s sovereignty and the fact that the U.S. requested the New York meeting allow Pyongyang to claim a propaganda victory and return to the six-party talks, where the U.S. will be under pressure to sweeten its offer and the South can fill in the details of its mammoth aid proposal. Even without accepting a deal, Pyongyang will call its decision to resume negotiations a concession and likely be paid off handsomely for the trouble.

Bribery has become a fact of life when dealing with Pyongyang. A long history of “incentives” has conditioned the North to demand payoffs for every step forward. Getting the North to agree to give up its nuclear ambitions — and settle all the concerns of the parties to the six-party talks — will be expensive. The price may be worth paying, but only if there are guarantees that these problems are genuinely solved.

Pyongyang should not be rewarded for stalling, bluffing or merely acting in accordance with the rules of civilized nations. Providing historic levels of assistance to North Korea to overcome structural problems that threaten a quarter of its population with imminent starvation is an acceptable response if Pyongyang is ready to live in peace with its neighbors. That must remain the foundation of engagement with the North. Success depends on generosity and vigilance in equal amounts.

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