Clearly Not Open for Business

Washington was careful not to raise expectations when it opened preliminary talks on a peace treaty with North Korea last month, a caution whose wisdom has now been validated. This week, after a fruitless second meeting in New York, the State Department said it will not “waste time” on any more senior-level talks until North Korea shows it is ready to agree on an agenda, the starting point for any serious discussions. Serious talks would commit North Korea to at least consider changing the tense status quo that has prevailed on the Korean peninsula for nearly half a century. But any change that improved relations would also erode the regime’s justification for maintaining Stalinist state controls and spending a vast amount of national wealth on the military. That the Pyongyang leadership does not want.

The New York talks, which also involve South Korea and China, were supposed to arrange a conference in Geneva aimed at reaching a peace agreement to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. But North Korea continues to insist that it is ready for peace only with the United States, not South Korea. It insists that Washington agree in advance to withdraw the 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea and that U.S. food aid to the famine-stricken north be increased to show American goodwill. Humanitarian food aid, unlinked to political issues, has already been generously provided. Pyongyang’s other demands remain unacceptable.

Next month is expected to see North Korean leader Kim Jong Il finally assume the titles long held by his late father--Communist Party secretary and state president. This week the military, believed to be among the institutions most resistant to change, endorsed that elevation, an implicit signal that modifications in Pyongyang’s behavior shouldn’t be expected any time soon.