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HONOLULU — While the Bush administration is to be commended for not overreacting to North Korea’s saber-rattling and for its continuing assertion that it seeks a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear standoff, Washington needs to stop pretending that there is no “crisis” or that there is no difference between one or two suspected nuclear devices and a full-blown North Korean nuclear weapons program involving the extraction of enough plutonium for numerous bombs. This is a crisis involving both nonproliferation and Korean Peninsula security, and must be dealt with as such.

To be fair, it is wrong to accuse the Bush administration of ignoring the problem. A great deal of diplomatic effort has gone into tightening the noose around Pyongyang and demonstrating to its leadership that its actions are only further isolating the “hermit kingdom” and putting its people at greater disadvantage. U.S. President George W. Bush’s willingness to wave some carrots in front of Pyongyang — his promise of a “bold approach” toward future cooperation in return for North Korean compliance with its previous nuclear obligations — is likewise a positive gesture that has not been sufficiently recognized and praised by Seoul.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that the United States can deal simultaneously with Iraq and North Korea, and his alert order to prepare for the deployment of strategic bombers and attack aircraft to East Asia if needed, underscore Bush’s reminder that “all options remain on the table” despite his current commitment to a peaceful solution.

Based on his behavior thus far, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appears to have drawn the conclusion that he has a free pass to misbehave as long as Washington remains focused on Iraq. “All options” assertions are likely viewed as not very credible, especially since Seoul keeps handing out the carrots while ruling out the sticks. Unless Washington and Seoul can jointly convince the North that its decision to actively pursue nuclear weapons will threaten, rather than enhance, North Korea’s national security, Pyongyang’s efforts to pursue a nuclear weapons program will continue unabated.

In criticizing the Bush administration’s policy toward North Korea, many North and South Koreans call for a return to the policies of the Clinton administration. They forget that President Bill Clinton was prepared to use force to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. When former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says “the credibility of our determination to remove the nuclear threat even if it risks war” is a key ingredient in any possible solution to the current stand-off, he speaks from experience. He was drawing up the plans for military action at the same time former President Jimmy Carter was striking the deal that made military action unnecessary in 1994.

But the other key ingredient, according to Perry, is “the courage and the confidence to pursue creative diplomatic alternatives to war.” Washington needs to be — in the eyes of its allies, especially South Koreans — more flexible and forthcoming in dealing with Pyongyang.

This does not mean that asking either Carter or a more acceptable alternative to go to Pyongyang is the answer, although sending a high-level emissary — such as former Secretary of State James Baker or former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft — at some point in the future should not be ruled out. It does mean making the North Koreans an offer they can’t refuse, or one that, if refused, would leave little doubt that North Korea is interested in nothing less than developing nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration needs to go beyond vague references to a “bold approach” and, as Scowcroft recently argued, “offer a clear vision of the diplomatic solution it favors — and a road map to get there.” While the administration’s offer of a “5-plus-5” forum remains a reasonable one, agreeing to bilateral discussions does not “reward” Pyongyang for past indiscretions. Combining both approaches could provide a way forward.

Several security specialists — including Scowcroft and former State Department officials Robert Einhorn and Alan Romberg — have offered various “win-win” formulas where Washington agrees to full-scale negotiations in exchange for and concurrent with a freeze in all North Korean nuclear activities. This would test the North’s sincerity and help convince others that more drastic measures are required, should Pyongyang come up with reasons to reject this offer as well.

Meanwhile, new South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has stated that he is committed to working closely with Washington, Tokyo, China, Russia and others to “resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue.” If so, rather than just call for talks, he should formally offer to host a multilateral meeting of senior officials to bring all the concerned parties to the table before North Korea takes steps — such as beginning to reprocess its spent fuel — that may force a military confrontation.

For its part, Washington should reinforce its earlier stated willingness to meet separately with Pyongyang along the sidelines of such a meeting (which should also include a North-South bilateral discussion on the nuclear issue). An agreement by Washington and Seoul that reprocessing represents a “red line” that will require a reassessment of the current joint U.S.-South Korean commitment to a peaceful solution would provide some added incentive for Pyongyang to accept such an offer.

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