The four-way Korea peace talks are again in the news as negotiators from North and South Korea, the United States and China return to the table in Geneva. Few people are holding their breath, and no one should. Diplomacy has hit a bind as Pyongyang keeps the world guessing about its intentions to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The latest worry in Japan and elsewhere in the region is North Korea’s ballistic missile program. There have been a stream of intelligence reports suggesting that the North Koreans are preparing to test-fire an advanced long-range ballistic missile capable of hitting not only the entire Japanese archipelago, but even Alaska. Both Japan and the U.S. have pressed Pyongyang not to test such a missile. But North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan reportedly told the U.S. negotiator in Geneva that launching a missile is “a matter of sovereignty.”

It is time that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea rethink their North Korea strategy. Washington still favors a “comprehensive and integrated” approach in dealing with the North Korean regime, a policy that has been in the works by U.S. President Bill Clinton’s special adviser on North Korea, former Defense Secretary William Perry. Mr. Perry apparently believes that Pyongyang will respond if Washington and its two Asian allies spell out all the political and economic benefits that North Korea will gain in return for a “comprehensive” settlement of all pending issues.

Actually, however, all signs from Pyongyang indicate that the basic tenet of the current U.S. strategy on North Korea — the 1994 “agreed framework” on the North’s nuclear program — is no longer working. The deal commits North Korea to freeze its domestic nuclear program in return for the supply of two advanced — but less suitable to making weapons — light-water reactors under a U.S.-led international consortium. The accord says nothing about North Korea’s missile technology and the North Koreans have refused to budge in this area. As a matter of fact, no one is sure if North Korea has even given up its nuclear weapons program.

There is another issue that carries potentially greater strategic implications: North Korea’s frigid response toward U.S. and South Korean initiatives to crack open the hermetic regime. The 1994 agreed framework commits the U.S. and North Korea to set up a “liaison office” in each other’s capital and diplomats from the two countries went so far as site-hunting. But Pyongyang abruptly terminated all further talks in 1995.

To Mr. Kim Jong Il and the ruling communist establishment in North Korea, the most important priority is to maintain the existing regime. If there is a lesson the North Koreans learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its European satellites, it is apparently the curse of reform: Once a country opens to outside forces, the regime itself can implode. When the four-party peace talks were last held in April, South Korea proposed setting up a hotline between military authorities in Pyongyang and Seoul in the hope that such a step might lead to better mutual confidence. North Korea’s response was anything but forthcoming.

Thus, the current talks in Geneva are reduced to a review of grand but bland topics: reduction of tension and establishment of a framework for peace on the Korean Peninsula. All the while, military tension heightens in the region.

In North Korea, the current regime seems determined to pursue “big power” status by beefing up its military muscle. In South Korea, the government is seeking endorsement from the U.S. to extend the range of its missile capability, from 180 km to 300 km. In Japan, the government has given the green light to conduct joint research with the U.S. on the development of an antimissile missile system. The government also plans to upgrade Japan’s intelligence-gathering capability by developing a domestic spy satellite. In Washington, the U.S. Navy sent two aircraft carriers along with two advanced missile-tracking vessels to waters off Japan.

Tokyo, Washington and Seoul appear convinced that the three countries must raise their military alertness while maintaining the “comprehensive” approach in dealing with North Korea. However, this haphazard policy is no way to establish long-term peace and security in East Asia. The three countries cannot afford to cook up policies in an ad hoc fashion every time North Korea plans to shoot a missile or a suspected nuclear weapons site is found in the North. The time has come for the three nations to re-establish priorities in dealing with Pyongyang and formulate a policy that is based on shared long-term strategic interests.

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