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Patience in Korea

Relations between North Korea and the outside world, always tenuous, are again on the verge of snapping. The reason: US intelligence reports of an underground complex being built in the North that could be intended to house a nuclear weapons program.

Four years ago, North Korea signed an agreement with the United States and South Korea to give up just such a program. The North's quid pro quo for ending the program was substantial fuel aid from the US, plus South Korean and Japanese help in building new light-water nuclear reactors that produce much less weapons-grade plutonium than the old Soviet models.

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Admittedly, the US has been slow to make good on its part of this deal. Congress hasn't rushed to appropriate the money, $35 million this year, to supply North Korea with badly needed fuel oil. With Senate approval in hand, however, the Clinton administration appeared to have nearly corralled the latest installment.

But the intelligence finding jeopardizes that. Nor will it hasten the reactor project - though a cost-sharing agreement, with South Korea providing about 70 percent of the $4.6 billion, is to be signed this weekend.

Why would the North Koreans chance destroying the '94 agreement by building a new weapons complex? Some speculate they see it as a fresh bargaining chip to speed aid. Another push toward nuclear weapons could also be an index of just how isolated and cornered the North now feels.

North Korean actions have not been reassuring. Witness the spy submarine found off the South's coast in June. Even as the North prepares to anoint another supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, its economy is disintegrating and its people suffer from famine.

Reasonable negotiation with a regime stuck in its own bizarre communist mythology is difficult, but unavoidable. The '94 deal proved that fruitful negotiation is possible. That deal should be protected against dismantlement, whether by North Korean backtracking or congressional snap reaction.

Meanwhile, the glacially slow four-way talks between the two Koreas, China, and the US - aimed at formally ending the hostilities of 45 years ago - have to be patiently pursued.

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