We all woke up today (at least on the East coast of the US) to the story that North Korea is saying that it will step back from its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees from the US and more aid, especially a light-water reactor. This is good and it is not surprising. The elements of a deal with North Korea have been evident for a long time; what has been missing is the political will on the part of the Bush administration. At this point, I think that we should give them what they want - in return for what we want, which is a process to reduce nuclear armaments and a rigorous inspections regime. Indeed, we should jump on it. Or, to use an American football term (which might also apply to basketball): flood the zone; that is, give them so much of what they want that it undermines their political defenses, which are based on complaints that we are not giving them enough.
The US is a much more powerful country than North Korea, even with the debacle in Iraq and the fumbling over hurricane Katrina. There are few ways in which North Korea can really harm US interests. Developing and trading nukes is one such way. We cannot militarily attack them (which Rumsfeld and Co. have gradually come to realize); so, a political deal that recognizes their existence (which is the thing Bush has been unable to do), however repressive a regime it is, and distracts them from building nuclear arms is clearly the best way forward.
And there is a point to be made here about power. If Iraq has shown us anything it is the seemingly paradoxical notion that exercising power can be a sign of weakness. When you have to actually invade, and use coercive force, it means that the political influence that flows from the possession of power has waned. Using power is a mark of lost influence. For the past four years, the Bush administration seems to have been caught up in a desire to use power against North Korea (military action; more sanctions; etc.), and failed to find ways to influence it in the desired direction. All that has collapsed now - laying bear the limits of American power in the region - and the US government has returned to deal-making. If it had made a deal three or four years ago we would be in exactly the same spot we are now, sans the drawn-out demonstration of what could not be accomplished through threats.
Yes, there is a Chinese philosophy angle here, like passage 69 from the Tao Te Ching (I'm sure there will be plenty of people who will disagree with the last line; I don't completely agree with it myself, but the larger message of the passage seems right for the North Korea situation):
There was once a saying among those
who wielded armies:
"I'd rather be a guest than a host,
much rather retreat a foot than advance an inch."
This is called "marching without marching,
rolling up sleeves without baring arms,
raising swords without brandishing weapons,
entering battle without facing an enemy."
There's no greater calamity than dishonoring an enemy.
Dishonor an enemy and you'll lose those treasures of mine.
When armies face on another in battle.
It's always the tender-hearted one that prevails.