The speed with which former US president Bill Clinton won the release of two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea was breathtaking. Just 24 hours after his plane touched down in Pyongyang, he and Euna Lee and Laura Ling were flying home, having won a pardon from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il over dinner on Tuesday. The feat was in stark contrast to the six years of tortuous on-off talks over the North's nuclear programme. Trading the freedom of journalists for the recognition Pyongyang craves is hardly a formula for disarming the North. But it does suggest that the possibility of dialogue with Washington could bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
North Korea has backed away from the China-mediated six-nation talks to scrap its nuclear weapons in favour of seeking direct discussions with the United States. US President Barack Obama has rejected the idea. In the absence of a stated policy, his administration has largely continued the approach of containment and isolation adopted by his predecessor, George W. Bush. North Korea threatens peace and security in East Asia. But the country is not high on Mr Obama's priority list. Few Americans see the far-off, secretive and poverty-ridden nation's nuclear bombs and missiles as troublesome. The economic crisis and other domestic concerns, Iran and the Middle East are perceived as more pressing. Despite this, the US has a key role to play in negotiations. Its military presence in Japan and South Korea rankles the North. There is still no peace agreement to formally end the Korean war. To Pyongyang, the security, technology and economic gains it craves can be best delivered by Washington.
There is no straightforward solution. North Korea is a wily negotiator. Two decades of talks have time and again won it incentives for little or no advantage for its partners. Frustrated veterans of the six-party talks describe the North as the shakedown state. What is plain, though, is that talking to Mr Kim's regime is better than ignoring it. In a fashion, Mr Clinton has just shown that.
The six-party process is the best way forward. It has in large part faltered because of a lack of a united front among participants. Each has its own, diverging, agenda. Setting these aside in the name of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula has to be the immediate goal. Informal bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang may be necessary to get the North back to the negotiating table.