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Star Treatment
Is there substance behind North Korea's new, improved style?

Soldiering out: Why American troops may eventually have to leave Asia

For the past week, North Korea has been in the unlikely position of being a star. At the Group of Eight industrial nations summit in Okinawa, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought to the table Kim Jong Il's supposed offer to curb Pyongyang's missile development in exchange for help on space exploration. Muted applause, maximum publicity. At the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on security in Bangkok, the North's first appearance elicited audible sighs of relief and largely unrestrained chumminess. After all, the seven-year-old ARF has spent the past six years fretting impotently about Pyongyang's perceived military ability to destabilize the region. Nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, the missiles to deliver those payloads — all have been discussed earnestly. Now here was Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, slightly unnerved by the attention, but at least present to enter the debate. Except that there wasn't one.

Perhaps natural politeness was at play. One doesn't invite a long-shunned guest to an established club and then grill him about his government's supposed nasty designs on everyone else around the table. One introduces him around, tries to build some trust and bonhomie, and hopes the newcomer will feel like coming back and getting even chummier. "This is a big step forward for security and diplomacy in the region," said host Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. Certainly by joining the now 23-country forum, North Korea is obliged to make public its key positions on defense, participate in high-level exchange visits related to security and give prior notice to other members of military drills. For Asia, that is an extraordinarily good start.

From the North's point of view, much was achieved in Bangkok. On the sidelines, its foreign minister had the first face-to-face meetings in years, if not decades, with counterparts from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Canada agreed to join Australia, the Philippines, Italy and Kuwait in normalizing relations. From the ARF standpoint, just getting all the protagonists in Northeast Asia together for the first time was a triumph. No one seemed really surprised that Paek could shed no further light on Kim's missile-program offer to Putin. His job was to take soundings and report back. Only U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, slightly testy in light of unresolved West Asian peace talks back at Camp David, cut to the chase. She failed to glean more details about the offer, she said, although she was "somewhat more hopeful than before" about the prospects for long-term stability.

Of course, the U.S. has already been down a similar track. In 1994 it led a consortium that agreed to donate fuel oil and to build reactors to generate electricity. In return, the North agreed to freeze all nuclear activity. Many observers doubt that North Korea was even close to nuclear capability, just as many believe its missile program is primitive. No matter, when the nuclear deal began to stutter, Pyongyang speared a test missile over Japan and everyone rushed back to the negotiating table. It is difficult not to view the latest offer in much the same light.

Perhaps all the fuss over Pyongyang's diplomatic push is largely because little else happened at ARF. Lots of talk but no real action. The need for substance will also be the key test of Pyongyang's apparent bid for harmony with the neighbors.

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