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Hope for North Korea

A tragedy is unfolding in North Korea - a tragedy that has been shaped largely by that country's inward-looking, unenlightened government. Tens of thousands of North Koreans, particularly children and older people, are near starvation.

Famine has been deepening there for months, if not years. Climatic factors have led to crop failures, but beyond that, centrally dictated agricultural policies have allowed no flexibility in planting, and no modern use of crop rotation or even fertilizer. On top of that, during the past few years Pyongyang's communist elite has been preoccupied with making the transition from longtime dictator Kim Il Sung to his son, Kim Jong Il.

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Through it all, North Korea's ability - and willingness - to seek outside help has been minimal. Its perpetual state of war with South Korea has soured relations with much of the rest of the world. And until recently it had done little to welcome private or intergovernmental aid. The amount of aid currently getting through is far short of what's needed.

There's now a glimmer of light in the North's darkness. Pyongyang has agreed to engage in talks with South Korea, the United States, and China on formally ending the Korean war. Preliminary talks began last week in New York, with emphasis on setting a time and place for final talks. Agreeing on an agenda is a sticky matter: North Korea wants immediate consideration of such items as removal of the 37,000 US troops in the South.

But the North may finally be ready to negotiate in good faith. If people's needs have any weight in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the negotiators from Pyongyang should be anxious to get talks moving. Few things will be more beneficial in brightening long-term prospects for the North's 24 million citizens.

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