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Pyongyang wants bilateral talks

North Korea's ready to talk. Again.

The hermit state's routine of artificially manufacturing a crisis (with the intent to reap rewards by agreeing to fresh negotiations) is nothing new. Yet this time, rather than asking for food aid or oil shipments, Pyongyang now says it will come back to the table only if the six-party format is abandoned and replaced by bilateral talks with the United States.

The United States has offered to talk to North Korea directly within the six-party framework, but the latter insists that's not good enough. The nuclear issue, according to the North's top U.N. diplomat, is an issue concerning only Pyongyang and Washington, and should be discussed as such.

For all its faults, North Korea makes a good point; the Six-Party Talks have been a tremendous disappointment for everybody involved, and not all are as concerned about nukes as the White House is. Washington has strongly resisted talking directly to North Korea in the past. But maybe it's time to try a different tack. After all, the current stalemate has been nothing less than gift to the Kim regime.

Until now, negotiations have had participants working at cross-purposes anyway. The South Koreans want to pursue a strategy of economic integration with their neighbors, while U.S. officials want to starve them out. Japan won't touch the nuclear issue until a longstanding hostage crisis with North Korea gets resolved. China doesn't want to push the rogue state too far for fear of prompting a flood of refugees across their common border. And Russia has never been very engaged in the debate to begin with, though it remains a major source of fuel oil for Pyongyang. What's worse, only the United States insists on the North's total disarmament as a prerequisite to U.S. concessions -- a position not shared by America's partners.

Viewed in a different light, the North's proposal could be a unique opportunity.

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German health minister loses her government car... in Spain

Although Britain's expenses scandal hurt politicians on both sides of the aisle, the Labour Party did bear the brunt of the blow, with several cabinet ministers resigning in the aftermath. The opposite may happen in Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel's health minister is under fire after her official car was stolen, but, fortunately for Merkel, the health minister is from the opposition.

The German health minister, Ulla Schmidt, has been criticised after her official car was stolen in Spain, where she was using it during her vacation.

The 90,000 euro (£78,000) Mercedes S-class was stolen in Alicante.

Mrs. Schmidt flew there at her own expense. Her chauffeur drove 2,400km (1,500 miles) to meet her so she could carry out some official business.

But opposition politicians want to know why she needed her car in Spain, when embassy vehicles are available.

Schmidt has filled the role of Health Minister since 2005, when Merkel's Christian Democrats formed a grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats. Schmidt's scandal comes at a particularly poor time for her party, as Merkel's party has increased its lead in the polls to 12 points only two months before a new round of elections. 

Also, German ministers get a Mercedes S-class for official business? Snazzy.

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