The summit meeting in Crawford, Texas, this week between President Bush and Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plays an important role in determining whether the North Korean nuclear crisis can be peacefully resolved or whether it will explode with devastating consequences.
The confrontation over North Korea is currently about as dangerous as can be imagined. It pits North Korea's unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Il, who specializes in taunting nuclear brinkmanship, against President Bush, who has just demonstrated in Iraq that he has the military means - and the will - to use them against regimes perceived to threaten American interests and security.
There are alarming uncertainties on both sides. It isn't clear whether North Korea is accelerating its nuclear capability, and is willing, to sell nuclear bombs to all comers, including terrorist groups as it has threatened to do - or whether this is just a bluff to extract major concessions from the US. Meanwhile, on the American side, as the State Department and the Pentagon tussle for Mr. Bush's soul, it isn't clear how far diplomacy will continue to be employed before it is overtaken by more forceful action.
With diplomacy currently in play, the importance of Mr. Koizumi's meeting with Bush is underlined.
Bush is trying to line up Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia with the US in bringing multilateral pressure to bear on North Korea. The nations Bush is soliciting are publicly skittish about the use of force. But all are opposed to nuclear-weapons development on the Korean peninsula. Privately, they may be encouraged to support the US in decisive measures - such as a blockade to prevent North Korea's export of nuclear bombs or plutonium - that stop short of the surgical strike against its Yongbyon nuclear complex that is favored by some Washington hard-liners.
Koizumi supported Bush on Iraq and Bush's firm line on North Korea. Japan, which has already slowed remittances to North Korea, might be expected to pressure Pyongyang not to export missiles, and perhaps to supply the US with intelligence and more-robust support.
South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun has been more elliptical in his comments about the use of force against North Korea. But sources close to his discussions with Bush in Washington last week say they went well, and the concluding joint communiqué included a significant phrase. While expressing optimism about a peaceful resolution, it did not rule out "consideration of further steps."
China, for its part, has actively used its influence on Pyongyang in an attempt to curb North Korea's nuclear program. US diplomats hope that China would not seek to block a UN resolution authorizing interdiction of North Korean nuclear exports.
Adding Russia to this lineup, the Bush administration hopes for multilateral negotiations between North Korea and this five-nation coalition to end Pyongyang's nuclear program. It isn't clear whether Mr. Kim would agree to this format. He has long maneuvered for direct talks with the US, but Washington is reluctant to reward bad North Korean behavior - a string of broken promises and duplicity about its arms program - with bilateral negotiations.
Nor, given Kim's unpredictable zigs and zags, is it clear whether he really wants a resolution of the problem, or whether he is just stringing along his interlocutors as he builds more nuclear bombs.
Former Clinton administration advisers Samuel Berger and Robert Gallucci, writing in The Wall Street Journal, think a satisfactory agreement may not be achievable but that the US must test the North Koreans "in good faith."
Foreign-policy experts Alan Romberg, senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center (a Washington think tank), and Michael Swaine, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, similarly believe in diplomatic testing of the North Koreans. But writing in the publication Arms Control Today, they urge a "test and response" negotiating approach to achieve a minimum level of mutual trust before attempting more difficult objectives. These would include different levels of assurances and aid from the US, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia in return for a total and permanent shutdown of the North Korean nuclear program, shipment of all existing spent fuel out of the country, and comprehensive inspections to verify compliance.
The alternatives boil down to: a challenging diplomatic effort along such lines; a US decision to effect a "regime change" in North Korea, to which Kim is hardly likely to subscribe; or a military strike that would bring war to the Korean peninsula.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor who won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.