Talking Down North Korea

In case anyone hasn't caught up with the crisis over North Korea's nuclear scare, that's probably because the Bush administration still prefers not to call it a crisis.

But given the rising level of threats and counterthreats in recent days, a crisis by any other name would set off a five-alarm warning.

Tensions began to rise last October when the US forced North Korea to admit it had restarted a program to enrich uranium, violating a 1994 pact. After the US cut off fuel-oil aid in retaliation, North Korea kicked out foreign inspectors, withdrew from a nonproliferation treaty, and began moving nuclear fuel rods from its Yongbyon reactor complex, possibly to extract enough plutonium to produce as many as six to eight nuclear warheads. Last week, US forces in the western Pacific were put on high alert.

And those are just the actions. The threatening words coming out of Washington and Pyongyang have created an even more ominous climate for any sort of diplomacy to find a way out of this, well, crisis.

President Bush hinted on Friday that US military action against North Korea hasn't been ruled out. And North Korea, in its usual bellicose way, threatened a preemptive strike on US forces in South Korea.

All that aside, the immediate issue between the two sides lies simply in how they talk to each other: One on one? Or with other nations?

North Korea, whose economy has all but collapsed, needs economic help and is using its nuclear threat to get both aid and an agreement from the US not to attack. President Bush refuses to "bribe" North Korea to have it mothball its nuclear program. And Mr. Bush won't sign a bilateral nonaggression pact.

Instead, Bush wants the UN Security Council to consider sanctions on North Korea. This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency will vote on whether to ask the Council to do that. Bush even made calls to the leaders of China and Russia on Friday to further seek their help.

One problem in Bush's game plan is that South Korea isn't playing along. It supports North Korea's demand that the US swear off an attack. And it doesn't totally buy the US argument that North Korea might give nuclear material to terrorists.

To help the US to enter bilateral talks with North Korea and defuse this crisis, Bush and the incoming South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, must reach a common negotiating stance. The two have more overlapping interests than differences. If the US can then talk to Pyongyang solo while also representing the interests of South Korea (and Japan), then North Korea may come into line.

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