WASHINGTON — Whatever else President Bush may be as a leader, he is no poker player. This is particularly true in his dealings with America's only nuclear-armed adversary, North Korea. Mr. Bush has shown a remarkable inability to read North Korea's leader, the eccentric Kim Jong Il.
Let's look at the cards. Last fall, North Korea responded aggressively to US pressure over its secret effort to enrich uranium - a second route to nuclear weapons. But North Korea always reacts to public pressure by escalating action to bring about crisis.
It tossed out International Atomic Agency inspectors, broke the seals on its spent reactor fuel, and refueled its plutonium-producing reactor. It also refurbished its reprocessing plant, where plutonium is extracted and prepared it to accept the spent fuel. That plant is now ready to begin operations.
The North Korean nuclear facilities had been mothballed since the Clinton administration pushed North Korea into the Framework Agreement that froze its program until the Bush administration terminated the accord. And finally, North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a move that may push Japan and South Korea to consider going nuclear.
Beginning in October 2002, the North Koreans claimed consistently that if the US would agree to one-on-one talks, the nuclear dispute could be resolved readily. Bush insisted on multilateral talks involving at least one other nation. North Korea, he said, was not a crisis but a regional problem.
After the US victory in Iraq, North Korea agreed to talks in which China would play a role as a third party, making talks multilateral and meeting a key US demand. This was a clear win for Bush, and he could have been raking in the pot in those talks scheduled to start Wednesday in Beijing. Instead Bush saw the move and raised it by bragging about North Korea's retreat, forgetting that the Koreans hold the high cards: two existing nuclear weapons and material to make many more.
From the earliest days of the present Bush administration, its Korea hawks have disparaged the Framework Agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration. That accord froze all the North Korean nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and Taechon, making production of more plutonium impossible.
The Clinton team inherited a dangerous situation and defused it. Its Framework Agreement wasn't perfect, nor did it seal off the route to building uranium warheads, but it bought nine years during which the North Koreans made no more atomic weapons.
When Bush became president, the North Korean situation was far better than when his father left office. It's now much worse. Whatever diplomatic gambits the administration may choose to play, the fact is that in a month North Korea could churn out plutonium for one new bomb every 30 days and keep it up for six months.
This predicament was avoidable. Last September, the North Korean demand was for bilateral talks with the US, an opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue face to face, and a (meaningless) nonaggression treaty. Throwing in diplomatic recognition might have gained the US far more while costing little. Modest concessions by the US might have resolved the problem.
North Korea is in a stronger bargaining position now, as Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly begins the multilateral talks scheduled Wednesday in Beijing. He has few cards to play.
The Bush administration's goal today should be what the Clinton administration sought: dismantling of Korea's reactors, destruction of the plutonium-reprocessing plant, an end to any plans to enrich uranium, and ultimately the removal of the plutonium in existing nuclear weapons - not regime change. Kim Jong Il's country is a throwback to Stalin's era, and his people live in poverty so that the government can build nuclear weapons and maintain a million-man army. So be it. The only way North Korea can threaten the US is with nuclear weapons, and getting rid of them must be the highest priority - even if the US must make essentially meaningless concessions to Korean pride.
• Peter D. Zimmerman, a defense consultant, was State Department science adviser for arms control under President Clinton.