Changing tack on Korea

February 14, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH'S approach to defusing the North Korean nuclear threat has failed. The administration was intent on not repeating the errors of the Clinton administration, which struck a bilateral deal with the North that left plenty of room for the North to cheat. But in Mr. Bush's first term, this seemingly perpetual crisis has gone from bad to worse.

The North has kicked out international atomic inspectors and stalled efforts at Chinese-led multilateral talks, while moving rapidly toward weaponizing its nuclear material and peddling it around the world. Now, for the first time, the North is boasting openly of nuclear bombs - and has resumed demands for direct talks with the United States.

The United States has been wise to react very coolly, and it's a good sign that China over the weekend was unusually critical of the North's actions. But U.S. options remain very limited and unfavorable:

Foreign hopes aside, Kim Jong Il's regime isn't collapsing on its own. Pre-emptive military action would cost far too many lives and would likely be very difficult, if not impossible, to contain. Tightening the noose around the North with economic sanctions and a blockade would heat up the crisis, make diplomatic resolution harder to achieve, and alienate China and South Korea - who would have to be key partners to any resolution, but greatly fear the likely instability on their borders from a sudden collapse of Mr. Kim's Stalinist regime.

At the same time, relying primarily on China's influence apparently won't work: Even given Beijing's stronger language over the week, its leverage with the North and its willingness to use its power - short of responding to a direct threat - have proved less than originally assumed.

If the end goal is a peaceful resolution in which the North receives U.S. recognition and economic aid for allowing inspectors back in and for verifiably giving up its nuclear weapons and material, then the least-worst option now is for the Bush administration to hold its nose, change course, and enter into some form of direct talks with the North - under the diplomatic pretext of the six-party talks.

Pyongyang's neighbors still would have critical roles in supporting these talks and enforcing a settlement. But the Bush administration must be willing to trade some loss of political face - in sitting down alone with the North - for the most viable shot at getting these bombs out of Mr. Kim's hands.

Even with direct talks, success can't be guaranteed, of course; plenty of hazards would remain. But wasting more time on a demonstrably failed approach would almost certainly give Pyongyang more time to develop into an even greater danger to the United States and the rest of the world.

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