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Fair deal in North Korea

ALTHOUGH NORTH Korea seemed yesterday to be hedging on Monday's agreement to dismantle all its nuclear weapons and programs, there are reasons to cheer the statement issued in Beijing Monday by the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea.

North Korea wanted the Bush administration to make a significant concession first. It demanded that the United States provide it with a light-water nuclear reactor for electricity production. Only then would it dismantle its nuclear weapons and programs, rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The North is asserting a right to peaceful nuclear energy and reminding Washington that it was promised light-water nuclear reactors in the 1994 Framework Agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration.

If the Bush administration can overcome its hostility to any Clinton precedent, it will acknowledge the North's eventual right to a light-water reactor -- which is ill suited to producing fissile material for nuclear weapons -- and will focus its counter-argument on timing.

At present, North Korea is not in full compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it cannot claim a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The North will be able to exercise that right only after it returns to full compliance. And since Pyongyang will have to take many substantive steps before it is in full compliance -- including a complete and accurate listing of all its nuclear facilities and equipment -- Washington is right to say that this is not the ''appropriate time" for a commitment to provide a light-water reactor.

The North Koreans will be entitled to ask for a commitment to address their demand for a light-water reactor after they dismantle their nuclear weapons and programs. They would be in the wrong if they insisted on having a reactor before then, and they have ample incentives not do so.

The demand for a light-water reactor is consistent with the North Koreans' style of negotiating. They are recalling what they were promised in the 1994 Clinton agreement as a way both of asserting a right and insinuating that they have their reasons not to trust US promises.

All parties to the Beijing agreement stand to benefit from this agreement. The North not only received pledges of economic cooperation but also an artfully worded nonaggression commitment from the United States as well as the prospect of normalized relations with both the United States and Japan. This is tolerable price for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Also, President Bush learns to change a regime's behavior by diplomacy rather than by force.

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