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Talking to North Korea is certainly worthwhile for the U.S. to undertake

Just a few months ago, the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong II, appeared to be a lame duck in both senses of the term. In public appearances, he looked deathly ill after suffering a severe stroke in 2008, and preparations were reportedly underway for one of his sons to succeed him.

Fast-forward to today, and Kim is lame no more. Not only has he regained his vigor, judging by his performance during recent visits by Bill Clinton and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, but talk of his succession has also become muted. Kim is unquestionably still the man to do business with in Pyongyang.

But what kind of deals can be made? The United States, along with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, would like the North to return to the six-party negotiations and, moreover, live up to its earlier nuclear disarmament pledges. The first part, probably preceded by bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S., probably will take place soon. But the ultimate goal appears even more remote, if it were ever realistic.

North Korea has made it abundantly clear that it will not give up its nuclear weapons — “unthinkable ... even in a dream” as one of its officials recently put it. Possessing a nuclear deterrent is part and parcel of the North's declared intention to become a “strong and prosperous state” by 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung, and the 70th birthday of his son, the current leader.

The symbolism of the year has also convinced many North Korea watchers that Kim Jong Il's successor will be formally announced at that time to underscore his legitimacy and cement the dynastic transition to another generation.

For Kim Jong Il to relinquish his nuclear arsenal ahead of 2012 — the most potent element of North Korean power that was more than likely promised to his generals to secure their continued fealty to him and his appointed successor — is indeed unthinkable. And 2012 also marks the year when South Korea takes control of all United Nations ground forces — including U.S. ground troops — during wartime on the peninsula. That the North knows Seoul enjoys conventional superiority over its rapidly atrophying army only reinforces the need for a nuclear deterrent.

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