Facing reality on North Korea

The Bush administration should deal directly with North Korea, now.

Three years ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell had a bright idea for keeping nuclear weapons out of North Korean hands: negotiate one-on-one with the reclusive nation.

President George W. Bush soundly rejected that advice and, instead put his faith in inflammatory rhetoric and a blanket refusal to negotiate. Now, as intelligence officials warn that North Korea likely possesses a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and might soon test one, the Bush administration should face reality and negotiate directly with North Korea.

While that might seem like a radical departure from current U.S. policy, it is no more radical than the decision last year to initiate multiparty talks. The stubborn refusal to negotiate persisted for more than a year as hawks in the Pentagon clung to the fiction that dialogue and diplomacy were signs of weakness.

The current negotiating strategy includes Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. North Korea continues to prefer one-on-one negotiations and has made clear that a nonaggression pact, normalized relations and economic assistance top its wish list.

The Bush administration should be willing to entertain those concessions, and in a one-to-one setting.

To some, negotiating with North Korea will feel like surrendering to nuclear blackmail, but the reality is, budding nuclear powers have significant leverage. The alternative, whether it’s shunning all negotiations or hiding behind multiparty talks, only allows the offending country to proceed with its nuclear plans.

Bush came into office with an obvious aversion to international agreements, including the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. That agreement might not have contained North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but at the time, a diplomatic solution was better than all-out war.

The same holds true today. Everyone agrees that war on the Korean peninsula would be a bloody disaster.

To date, multilateral talks have served only to give North Korea a forum for rhetorical bluster and time for nuclear development. Only bilateral diplomacy can keep the Korean peninsula both peaceful and nuclear-free.