HONOLULU — Throughout the unfolding “noncrisis” on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang has stayed a step ahead of the rest of the world and appears to be dictating the pace of events. Avoiding a real crisis requires figuring out what North Korea wants and then devising a solution that meets those needs, as well as those of other concerned parties. There are growing indications that Pyongyang is playing for the big prize — the rupture of the U.S.-South Korean relationship — and that clumsy U.S. diplomacy may be helping them.

Getting inside the North Korean mind is always a hazardous exercise. About the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Pyongyang’s first priority is regime survival. After that, the terrain quickly gets slippery.

North Korea appears convinced that only the possession of nuclear weapons will secure its objectives. Security is one goal, but it is hard to see how nuclear weapons help a government that already holds its chief opponent hostage. South Korea, not the U.S., is the real threat to regime survival in the North, and conventional forces already threaten enough damage to the South to deter aggression. Pyongyang must know that the use of such weapons would be an act of desperation that would result in the end of the regime.

It is more likely that Pyongyang has determined that nuclear arms are critical to its political needs. North Korea cannot feed itself and needs assistance to survive. The real threat to the regime is implosion or collapse. North Korea has to be a priority item on the international agenda to secure that aid. The leadership may well have determined that, without nuclear weapons, their country is just another failed state that the world can and will ignore.

Proliferation is supposed to incur penalties, but the leadership in Pyongyang could be forgiven for looking at the experiences of India and Pakistan and that of Iraq and deciding that it is better to have those weapons than to give them up.

To my mind, North Korea’s demand for a nonaggression pact with the U.S. is a red herring. Either Pyongyang knows that the U.S. isn’t going to attack without cause, in which case the pact is pointless (or the demand for a pact has another purpose), or it genuinely fears U.S. aggression. If the latter, the series of provocative actions taken in recent weeks makes no sense.

In addition, if the North really wanted a deal with the U.S., it could have done more during the Clinton years with a U.S. administration that appeared ready to deal. Instead, Pyongyang stalled, and the window of opportunity closed. Finally, North Korea has shown precious little regard for the sanctity of international agreements generally, which suggests Pyongyang won’t be relying on a document with a regime that it is convinced is committed to “regime change” in capitals its dislikes.

So if North Korea is determined to build a bomb — and that appears to be the reluctant view emerging among Korea specialists — then what is the diplomacy for? One possibility is that negotiations will determine the pace of proliferation. North Korea might be willing to be bought off with a minimal arsenal, in exchange for hefty financial support, but that is a risky bet for the West given the North’s predilection for doing whatever it feels it can get away with.

The more alarming possibility is that the North long ago decided to build nukes and is now playing for an even bigger prize — the U.S.-South Korean alliance. It’s hard to miss the growing gap between U.S. and South Korean positions toward relations with the North, and Pyongyang senses this is as an opportunity to exploit. The North’s official rhetoric in the last few months has stressed the need for all Koreans to unite to repel all foreign invaders, an attempt to turn the U.S.-North Korean standoff into a U.S.-Korea faceoff.

Pyongyang is trying to make Washington look like the threat to peace and stability rather than its own actions. The steady escalation in tensions appears to be an attempt to provoke the U.S. into taking military action and confirming that claim, possibly rupturing the alliance for good and getting U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula.

To prevent that, the U.S. and South Korea must jointly declare a “red line” — the point at which both governments have agreed that North Korean action is unacceptable. That will send an unmistakable signal to Pyongyang that its strategy will not work, and that it will be responsible for the consequences of its actions. The problem of course is that Seoul and Washington might be unable to reach agreement. If so, the alliance is in trouble, but South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has declared that he will not tolerate North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, so there is common ground between the two countries.

Washington must call also Pyongyang’s bluff and talk. Failing to do so allows North Korea to look reasonable and the U.S. obstinate. There is a real irony in all this. For over a year, U.S. nongovernmental specialists have urged North Koreans to take up the U.S. offer of talks “anywhere, anytime and without precondition.” While the Bush administration may not have truly wanted to negotiate, the North Koreans could have called the U.S. bluff and forced Washington to the table. The North didn’t.

Now the roles are reversed. Pyongyang now signals it is willing to talk and the U.S. looks obstinate. The U.S. should take this last chance to discern North Korea’s real intentions; only by talking to Pyongyang can Washington show the world the real threat to peace.

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