A Pragmatic Overture to Pyongyang

By many measures, North Korea is an even greater threat to the U.S. and the world than Iraq. It is a failed Stalinist state with a collapsing economy financed by exports of illegal drugs, counterfeit currency, and Scud missiles to anyone who will pay--including, perhaps, terrorists. Its dictatorial ruler, Kim Jong Il, the son of a previous dictator, has lied about developing nuclear weapons and now threatens war in a desperate attempt to get food and oil for his country. There's not much to like about North Korea, and President George W. Bush has made it clear from the start of his Administration that he wants regime change in this member, too, of the "axis of evil."

But his options are severely limited. Starving North Korea into submission could result in the sale of missiles and nuclear weapons to terrorists or the unleashing of its military against South Korea. Preemptive military action could easily do the same. The Administration's announcement that it will resume a formal "dialogue" with Pyongyang is the right move. So is the effort to enlist South Korea, Japan, and China in restraining the north. The immediate goal is to offer economic aid in exchange for opening the country to full and permanent inspection and surveillance of all nuclear facilities. The long-term goal should be to open the economy to investment and pave the way for a "soft landing" when the system collapses.

President Bush's hard line against North Korea when he first took office may have provoked Kim to reveal that his country had secretly been building a bomb throughout the '90s. But by abruptly halting diplomatic talks in 2000, labeling North Korea a member of the demonic axis, and talking of preemptive strikes, Bush also helped fuel the current crisis. At the same time he alienated a once-close ally, South Korea, by publicly rejecting the South's own dialogue with the North when its Prime Minister was in Washington on a state visit. Bush's latest pragmatic approach is the best of all bad options.

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