Nuclear Wal-Mart?

The Bush administration hailed as a victory North Korea's announcement in late July that it would participate in six-party talks on its nuclear program. The White House had insisted for months that Pyongyang's illicit activities were a regional issue best resolved in a multilateral setting. But unless the administration enters the new talks willing to negotiate, its victory on how many countries get to sit at the table will prove fleeting.

If past is prologue, the late summer meeting will produce sparks. North Korean and U.S. diplomats have met twice since the nuclear crisis resurfaced a year ago. Both times Pyongyang surprised the Americans by admitting rather than denying its nuclear ambitions. Last October, North Korean officials told James Kelly, the head of the U.S. delegation, that the North had an illicit uranium-enrichment program. Then, in a meeting this April, Kelly's counterpart informed him that Pyongyang had produced nuclear weapons, and that it could and would "display them," "make more" or "transfer them." In both cases, the North Korean statements ended the talks.

Don't be surprised, therefore, if this pattern repeats itself in the latest round of meetings. The evidence suggests that North Korea has finished extracting plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that had been kept in storage as part of the 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration -- giving it material for half a dozen more weapons. Should Pyongyang admit what Washington fears, the talks will likely disband in acrimony.

North Korea's nuclear activities provide a stiff test for George W. Bush. His strategy for dealing with North Korea -- and most other foreign-policy issues -- has thus far proceeded from three principles. The first might be described as the "ABC" principle -- Anything But Clinton. Bush entered office deriding Bill Clinton's foreign-policy stewardship. The mere fact, then, that Clinton was willing to talk with Pyongyang was enough to persuade Bush to rule out further discussions. "One of the things that is important to understanding North Korea," Bush said recently, "is that the past policy of trying to engage bilaterally didn't work."

Bush's second guiding principle has been to shun negotiations with evil leaders. The reason is simple: Despots such as North Korea's Kim Jong-Il (who Bush mocked as a "pygmy") cheat on the agreements they sign. The result, the White House argues, is that negotiations perpetuate problems rather than solve them.

Third, Bush believes that he can solve most foreign-policy problems by flexing America's considerable muscle. When pushed, his natural instinct is to push back. In the case of North Korea, that has meant refusing to play the game according to Pyongyang's terms. When the North wanted bilateral talks, Bush insisted on multilateral talks. When the North wanted to discuss the nuclear issues, Bush insisted on broadening the agenda to include missiles, conventional weapons and human rights. When the North blustered about nuclear threats, Bush said he would not give in to blackmail.

Unfortunately for Bush -- and the world -- his North Korean strategy has proven disastrous. ABC is not a policy. While the administration was applauding itself for refusing to give in, North Korea became the world's ninth nuclear power. Within a few years, its uranium-enrichment program will enable it to produce three nuclear weapons a year. By the end of the decade, its plutonium program will be capable of producing 25 to 50 weapons annually.

The consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea are profound. Pyongyang has missiles that can reach its neighbors, and it is developing missiles capable of reaching the United States. Just as frightening, cash-poor North Korea has shown that it will sell whatever it can produce -- and who doubts that there are ready buyers for a small suitcase of plutonium? This raises the nightmarish prospect that Bush inveighed against in his "axis of evil" speech: a nexus of terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea's emergence as a nuclear power has immense consequences for northeast Asia. Support is already growing in Tokyo for what was once unthinkable: a Japanese nuclear deterrent. Once Japan goes nuclear, so will South Korea and Taiwan. Washington's decades-long efforts to dissuade its regional allies from acquiring nuclear weapons will have been for naught. The nuclear taboo elsewhere in the world will be seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, broken.

Bush's response to Pyongyang's nuclear activities has been surprisingly blasé. The same administration that insisted that the possibility of Iraq building a nuclear weapon posed an unacceptable threat insists that the United States does not yet face a crisis on the Korean peninsula. This is so, Secretary of State Colin Powell argues, because "you can't eat plutonium." Of course, you can sell it and use the proceeds to buy a very nice meal.

Why has an administration that prides itself on being tough acted so meekly toward North Korea? One reason was that Bush wanted to take the country to war against Iraq. "We do not need another crisis now," Bush told his aides last October. And the president made sure one didn't occur. He downplayed the pressing nuclear threat from North Korea even as he hyped an alleged nuclear threat in Iraq.

Another reason was that for all the talk about flexing America's muscles, Bush blanched at the prospective costs of pushing North Korea hard. Saddam Hussein didn't have nuclear weapons; Kim Jong-Il did. Even if the United States successfully preempted a nuclear attack, North Korea has 10,000 artillery tubes deployed in the mountains about 40 miles north of Seoul, which could level the city of 10 million people. In effect, Bush, having trumpeted a doctrine of preemption as an alternative to deterrence and containment, was now himself deterred.

Unwilling to negotiate and reluctant to risk war, Bush opted to hope and pray. He hoped the North Korean regime would collapse, taking the nuclear problem with it. And he prayed that Pyongyang would not develop, test, use or sell nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, Kim Jong-Il remains in power, and North Korea appears to have called the White House's bluff.

The time has come for Bush to abandon the failed hope-and-pray strategy. He should use the six-party talks to offer North Korea what it claims it wants: a security guarantee, full diplomatic relations with Washington, and increased political and economic assistance from the United States and its regional allies. In return, he should make a simple demand: that North Korea dismantles its nuclear program and accepts intrusive and aggressive weapons inspections to ensure compliance.

Two criticisms can be leveled against such a bargain-and-badger strategy. One is that Pyongyang's nuclear program might not be for sale -- at any price. The only way to find out if this is true, though, is to make an offer. If negotiations fail to budge Pyongyang, the Bush administration will have laid the basis for working with its regional allies toward a more effective strategy of pressure -- including, possibly, military action.

The other criticism is that Pyongyang will cheat on any deal it signs. This is a real concern. No amount of verification can guarantee against cheating. But as we are learning to our great surprise in Iraq, intrusive verification can be far more successful than anyone anticipated in slowing programs aimed at building weapons of mass destruction. In any case, what is the alternative? A large and rapidly expanding North Korean weapons program.

Bush's current strategy is leading us down a dangerous path. Unless we move quickly, we could discover in the not-too-distant future that North Korea has set up shop as a nuclear Wal-Mart. In a world where al-Qaeda operatives are eager to fly jet planes into skyscrapers, that would be an unimaginable disaster.