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North Korea's offer

In talks Friday with a South Korean cabinet minister, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said he could return as early as next month to the suspended six-party talks in Beijing on the North's nuclear weapons program. Upon his return to Seoul, South Korea's Unification Minister Chung Dong Young said Kim had told him the North would come back to the talks ''if the United States firmly recognizes North Korea as a partner and respects it."

This is a positive message from the most authoritative messenger. President Bush needs to take Kim up on the offer instead of putting unrealistic conditions in the way of a settlement.

The North Korean ruler also specified what he would be willing to do in the event of successful negotiations. He said the North would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return and resume monitoring Pyongyang's nuclear facilities, as they had been doing until they were expelled in December 2002. He also said he would be willing to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. US national security can be greatly enhanced by placing North Korea's nuclear reactor under inspection and its fuel rods and reprocessed plutonium under IAEA seals.

Bush has everything to gain and very little to lose by testing Kim's willingness to do what he has now said he is willing to do.

Regrettably, a State Department spokesman said the only message from Pyongyang that would matter is one that sets a firm date for returning to the Beijing talks. The spokesman also warned that an unrealistic administration proposal made last summer -- that the North completely dismantle its nuclear program before the United States will consider what kind of security assurances and economic rewards it might offer Pyongyang -- must still be the basis for resuming the six-party talks.

This stance ignores the opportunity that opened up when Kim said that if his regime's ''security is guaranteed, there is no reason to possess a single nuclear weapon." It disregards the import of Kim telling Chung, ''If North Korea normalizes diplomatic ties with the United States and Washington becomes an ally with Pyongyang, then North Korea would give up all of its missiles."

Kim is saying that for the right price -- respect, economic benefits, and eventually diplomatic normalization -- he will hand over his nuclear program and cease both exporting and building his missiles. He is now asking Bush to start haggling about that price and the sequencing of payments.

The deal Kim is putting on the table requires only that Bush muster a show of respect for the boss of North Korea's Stalinist state as the price for shutting down the nuclear bazaar where Al Qaeda would be most likely to purchase the ultimate terror weapon.

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