THE BUSH administration finally may have located those weapons of mass destruction - not in Iraq, but in North Korea.
And as in Iraq, the administration seems set on a collision course with a madman - only this tyrant actually may possess nuclear weapons and soon could be willing to demonstrate that.
For Washington, this is an increasingly dangerous tack that hasn't worked and that must be changed before events further take on a life of their own.
Of course the problem here is Kim Jong Il, among the most despicable despots in modern history. Mr. Kim has just one card to play to ensure his survival, his nuclear threat, and the U.S. goal, of course, is to eliminate that threat, if not his regime.
Having seen the Clinton administration get taken the last time Washington and North Korea struck a nuclear bargain in 1994, President Bush's team has been determined not to make the same mistake. But its 2002 shift to a hardball policy has made matters much worse.
The start of Chinese-led multilateral talks among the United States, the North and its neighbors did provide hope of a diplomatic solution. But those talks have fizzled, China isn't leaning noticeably hard on the North, and the administration simply won't deal directly with Mr. Kim or lower itself to buy him out of his nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile, international inspectors have been kicked out of the North, it now is feared to be on the verge of testing one of a suspected half-dozen or so weapons, and the administration Sunday came close for the first time to challenging Mr. Kim with a "red line" warning that any test would prompt U.S. punishment.
The problem with such threats is that Washington might have to act on them. A strike on the North's nuclear facilities could provoke a counterattack on South Korea that could kill hundreds of thousands in minutes and inflame Northeast Asia. What then?
Economic sanctions through the United Nations are appealing. But in the two years after Washington got tough with the North, its foreign trade grew by 22 percent - thanks largely to China, Russia and South Korea. Just last week, Beijing even took the rare step of publicly lambasting Washington, not Pyongyang, for aggravating the conflict, adding that sanctions don't work.
Mr. Kim is a blackmailer, willing to hold his people and his neighbors at gunpoint. He may not even have nuclear weapons, but he'll do anything to sustain this crisis so that he stays on Washington's front burner. It's time for this administration to recognize that its strategy - and China's desire to act independently - plays into the North's game. It's time for Washington to defuse this standoff and take back control by again negotiating directly with the North.