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September 21, 2017

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US should start talks with N. Korea

North Korea is one of the most difficult countries in the world to deal with, even for China, its most important supporter.

For example, North Korea demands special treatment from China in the diplomatic realm. Previously, it demanded that only an ambassador of vice ministerial rank should be sent to Pyongyang and the Chinese acceded.

The last Chinese ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, is now ambassador to the United Kingdom, which is one of the handful of countries designated by China as requiring an envoy of vice ministerial rank.

But since Ambassador Liu left, North Korea has made another demand: future envoys must be sent from the Communist Party and not from the Foreign Ministry, which the North Koreans feel is too accommodating to South Korea and the United States.

Thus, the current ambassador, Liu Hongcai, who was posted to Pyongyang last year, was a deputy head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party.

But while North Korea may be difficult to deal with, it is far from being irrational. And it would be beneficial if the United States and its allies keep Pyongyang's interests in mind while pressing their demands.

Signs are increasing that the six-party talks, which have not been held in two years, may soon be revived.

There is no doubt that North Korea must be held to its earlier pledge to abandon its nuclear program. But, while doing so, the United States, South Korea and Japan must keep in mind Pyongyang's political needs, which can be summed up in one word: survival.

Negotiations are likely to be difficult. For one thing, North Korea sees an object lesson in Libya's current situation. There, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi dismantled Libya's nuclear program in 2003 in return for improved relations with the West. But now, the West is trying to topple his government and possibly to assassinate him.

North Korea will no doubt demand that the U.S. offer some security guarantees in return for whatever concessions it wants from Pyongyang. Washington should understand that, in North Korea's mind, the American threat is real. It is necessary for the U.S. to do more than say that North Korea need have no fear.

During the Bush administration, it was routine for the U.S. to say that it had no plans to attack North Korea and then add that "all options are on the table." This was not particularly reassuring to Pyongyang.

For a long time, the Bush administration also refused to talk directly to North Korea, saying that to do so would be to "reward bad behavior."

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