Don't hold your breath over North Korea's recent conditional "promise" to return to the Six Party Talks next month - after a year's hiatus - if the U.S. gives the communist nation more respect.
In the past, Pyongyang's qualified assurances have often been nothing more than a negotiating ploy for extorting economic aid or other "sweeteners" from sometimes willingly gullible counterparts.
Besides, just agreeing to return to the talks (composed of the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas) doesn't mean that any progress will be made in denuclearizing North Korea - or any other issue.
But you can be sure that Pyongyang's announcement will put tremendous pressure on Washington to make some sort of pre-talk concessions to the North as a "gesture of goodwill."
In the absence of any measurable progress, which doesn't include just returning to the negotiating table, Washington should do no such thing.
Of course, Bush-bashers - at home and abroad - will posit that if the U.S. is "nicer" to North Korea, Pyongyang will agree to swear off its reckless behavior, give up its missiles/nukes and open its hermetically sealed police state to the outside world.
It's a capital idea in theory but sheer fantasy. What has South Korea gotten for being "nice" to North Korea? Not much.
For instance, last week, North and South Korean delegations spent four days in Pyongyang "celebrating" the fifth anniversary of the first meeting between the leaders of the two nations since their partition 60 years ago.
The June 2000 summit between then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang was, indeed, historic, promising a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. It won South Korea's Kim the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
Only later did the world learn that Seoul had bribed Pyongyang with $500 million to hold the sit-down - surely the world's most expensive photo op.
And after the summit, South Korea lavished the largesse of the world's 11th-largest economy upon North Korea, spending billions, speeding food aid/fertilizer to its northern brethren, reestablishing long-severed road and rail lines and building an industrial park.
Five years on, Seoul has gotten episodic inter-Korean family reunions, tourism to the North's Mt. Kumgang and rounds of inconsequential meetings, all conducted on the North's timetable.
Be patient, argues South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's government; their "Sunshine Policy" policy will take time to rebuild trust after years of strife and conflict.
Of course, Chairman Kim is willing to accept anyone's "gesture of goodwill," all the while interning 200,000 in gulags, starving another two to three million, selling ballistic missiles to Iran/Pakistan, maintaining a million-man army . . . and building nukes.
Although the Six Party Talks provide the best peaceful alternative to resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff, we should keep our expectations modest - at best.
This notion is echoed by Christopher Hill, State's assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who last week said in the Senate that he holds "increasing doubts" that North Korea is willing to trade its nukes for security guarantees and economic aid.
So it's entirely possible that even if North Korea returns to the bargaining table in July, the Six Party Talks will fail. In that case, what should be done?
* Continue pressing ahead with sea- and land-based missile defense to guard against the nuclear threat, since there is no good conventional military option for dealing with North Korea.
* Lay the groundwork for taking North Korea to the U.N. Security Council for punitive economic sanctions. China will oppose doing so, but the threat itself may be enough to get movement from North Korea.
* Consider other non-military options to pressure the Kim regime, especially on human rights. Twenty two million hungry North Koreans live as virtual prisoners of the state. The world, especially Seoul, must stop averting its eyes to this massive human tragedy.
* Prepare ourselves-along with South Korea - for the possibility of regime collapse, including a succession struggle among Kim's three heirs (from two different mothers) and the North Korean military. China's likely role must also be assessed.
Unfortunately, there are many unpleasant choices and no obvious answers; dealing with Stalinist North Korea never has and never will be easy.
North Korea seems content with the status quo, willing to muddle through as an international panhandler with long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
The question we must ask ourselves is whether the status quo is something we can live with; if not, what are the actions - and risks - we're willing to take to change it?
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.
First appeared in the New York Post