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North Korea is delisted Lifting of terror designation at least opens inspections door

After nearly eight years of the Bush administration, the situation with North Korea is at least as dangerous, and difficult, as it was before. More so, in fact, if you count the fact that North Korea actually has tested a nuclear weapon, something that it had not done when George W. Bush came into office in 2001.

The lesson of that is not, necessarily, that Bush and his team have fumbled the job. It is that the next president, whoever he is, will have a difficult task ahead, one that will require equal amounts of firmness and creativity, applied at the right times and in the right amounts.

Take, for example, the happenings of the past week, when both Washington and Pyongyang finally did things they had agreed to do in the past, and left more things undone.

For now, at least, North Korea is off the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring nations. And, for now, North Korea has agreed to shut down, and to allow international inspectors to poke around, its one acknowledged nuclear weapons fueling station at Yongbyon.

Both steps had been agreed to months ago. And both were delayed while each nation stared down the other, each insisting that the other go first.

Experts are divided over whether the newest deal was the best that Bush and America's allies could hope for under the circumstances or whether it was a big boost for North Korea's isolationist leadership.

It could well be both.

Given that North Korea really does have a nuke or two, it is unrealistic to expect that small nation to just do as it is told by its betters.

The United States, meanwhile, can credibly argue that the removal of North Korea from its terrorist nation list is largely a symbolic gesture that is a very small price for the civilized world to pay, especially if it retards the North Korean nuclear plans in any way. Many other sanctions remain, including a ban on sale of items ranging from military and computer equipment to the high-end entertainment toys supposedly favored by seldom-seen dictator Kim Jong Il.

The fact that Kim is seldom seen these days -- rumored to be ill or disabled by a stroke -- only serves to further complicate the situation. If Kim passes from the scene, his successors may be easier to deal with. Or a dear-leaderless North Korea may prove to be even more dangerous.

The civilized world must watch this situation every second. The United States must keep open the channels of communications with its many allies -- which, in the case of Korea, includes China -- and with whoever there is to talk with in Pyongyang.

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