Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed as a "positive" development North Korea's offer to freeze its nuclear weapons and power program.
Maybe it is, but the offer still reeks of the usual low-grade blackmail because it is conditioned on the United States providing aid, lifting sanctions and signing a non-aggression pact.
It's not clear exactly what the freeze would entail. North Korea says generally it would not produce or test nuclear weapons and it would stop operating its nuclear power plants. It's also not clear how the freeze would be verified, because Pyongyang expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors just over a year ago. As North Korea has shown in the past, it is fully capable of resuming the program once it feels it has obtained enough concessions.
The offer falls far short of the Bush administration's goal of a "complete, irreversible and verifiable" dismantling of North Korea's entire nuclear program.
Whatever the U.S. response, it should be done jointly with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, our partners in negotiating with North Korea in the so-called six-party talks. Such talks have taken place twice in Beijing and a third meeting, scheduled for last month, has been postponed until later this spring. The little progress that has been made with North Korea was when the five nations, particularly China, presented a united front.
North Korea would dearly like to deal directly and only with the United States, but those four other nations have to live next to an erratic and dangerous little neighbor. We don't.
North Korea's offer would at least serve as a starting point for the next session of the six-party talks. But no utterance out of Pyongyang is complete without bluster and threats, and North Korea hinted that if the offer were not accepted now "the basis of dialogue will be demolished and a shadow will be cast over the prospects of talks."
Powell shouldn't buy it. We'll see the North Koreans in Beijing.