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Is there any point in talking to North Korea?
Pyongyang says it's willing to negotiate if the U.S. puts down its "nuclear stick"
 
North Korea's young leader is at least flirting with negotiations.
North Korea's young leader is at least flirting with negotiations.
AP Photo

North Korea has finally responded to calls for talks to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. After threatening the U.S. and South Korea with nuclear war for weeks, the Hermit Kingdom's combative leaders say they'll simmer down and return to the negotiating table if the United Nations lifts sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, and the U.S. stops holding joint military exercises with South Korea. North Korea said it is open to talks, but not while the U.S. is "brandishing a nuclear stick."

Predictably, neither of the conditions proposed by Pyongyang will fly in Washington or Seoul. South Korea's Foreign Ministry dismissed the demands as "incomprehensible" and absurd. But some diplomats took it as an encouraging sign that the regime of North Korea's erratic and untested young leader, Kim Jong Un, was even mentioning negotiations as a possibility, after he announced that his communist nation was in a "state of war" with its democratic neighbor to the south.

Many North Korean exiles say world leaders should stand fast, though, and refuse to bend to Pyongyang's demands. The consensus is that the regime "is so poor and undeveloped that it knows it would lose any fight. And lose badly," says Tim Sullivan at The Associated Press. Kim Jong Un's bluster has raised fears that he might be so inexperienced and eager to establish his authority that he'll push this confrontation farther than his late father, Kim Jong Il, would have. But North Korean exiles in South Korea say, in the words of one, "it's all nonsense."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. prefers to dial down the tension through negotiations, but that North Korea must first "make it clear they will move to denuclearizing as part of the talks." President Obama's recent remarks suggested he didn't think there was any reason to bend, either. "You don't get to bang... your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way," Obama said.

Skeptics say there's no point in talking to North Korea anyway, because it always makes promises as leverage to get what it really needs — aid to feed its starving people — then breaks them as soon as the cupboard is bare again. It's a tiring game.

The bottom line, Robert S. Litwak tells the Council on Foreign Relations, is that North Korea views its nuclear program as essential for its survival, so containment — not complete denuclearization — is probably the best we can hope for. The best solution to the current crisis, therefore, might be getting China — the only North Korea ally capable of making it an offer it can't refuse — to restart the six party talks last held in 2008. "This prescription is really making the best of a bad set of options."

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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