MONTEREY, Calif. — On the eve of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s swearing-in ceremony, North Korea lobbed a land-to-ship cruise missile into the Sea of Japan. This provocation took place as the world’s dignitaries — among them U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen — arrived in Seoul to welcome Roh’s inauguration.

North Korea’s missile test was an affront to South Korea, whose outgoing President Kim Dae Jung had pursued a “sunshine” policy toward the North during his term in office. It is worth remembering that Pyongyang has in the past sought to distract, disrupt and diminish the South’s achievements through various tactics out of jealousy, desperation or both. In November 1987, 10 months before the 24th Olympic Games were to be held in South Korea, two North Korean agents planted a powerful bomb on Korean Air Lines flight 858, killing all 115 people on board.

However, the North’s defiance and unsolicited provocation this time makes a mockery of Roh’s pledge for “peace and prosperity” in inter-Korea relations. It highlights the challenges the international community faces in breaking the nuclear stalemate, and raises serious questions about the strategy the U.S. has pursued in response to North Korea’s steadily escalating tactics.

The Bush administration’s position since last October’s revelation of the North Korean uranium enrichment program has been pressure, isolation and containment. It cut off supplies of heavy fuel to North Korea last December over Pyongyang’s violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. It has to date refused to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang, steadfastly upholding the principle that North Korea’s intransigence will not be rewarded. Instead, Washington has sought to convince its allies and relevant powers to adopt a multilateral united front to pressure Pyongyang. The administration’s expectation has been that under increasing international pressure and isolation, North Korea would buckle under.

The strategy has not worked so far. On the contrary, North Korea has expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, declared its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, reactivated the mothballed nuclear reactor, threatened war if the United Nations Security Council were to adopt a resolution imposing sanctions, and threatened an end to the 1953 armistice.

As the crisis drags on, serious rifts have begun to develop between the United States and its key allies, in particular South Korea, with Roh publicly ruling out any military resolution of the nuclear crisis. While Washington continues to insist that the North Korean nuclear crisis is a multilateral issue that requires a multilateral approach, other regional powers such as China have been reluctant to support the U.S. approach, seeing the only solution as direct North Korean-U.S. talks. Indeed, even if U.S. allies and concerned countries were willing to engage in multilateral diplomacy, Pyongyang would consider none of this as acceptable as direct talks with Washington to obtain security guarantees.

The U.S. has essentially three options for resolving the nuclear stalemate:

* The first involves continued refusal to direct talks with North Korea and intensified diplomacy to work on regional powers to exert pressure on and isolate North Korea. The expectation is that once the plug is pulled on energy and food supplies, the North Korean regime will not be able to survive. The key to the success of such a strategy would be to rally international public opinion on nuclear proliferation, maintain pressure through coordinated allied actions, and prod key countries such as China to do more.

However, such an approach is not viable due to the unwillingness of South Korea and China to adopt pressure tactics against North Korea. Both Seoul and Beijing perceive Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship as largely driven by the latter’s acute sense of insecurity. As the two countries that would bear the brunt directly should economic hardship bring about either implosion or reckless acts by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, both see their interests in keeping stability as the top priority even as they continue to look for ways to resolve the nuclear impasse.

* The second option is to prepare military action in response to mounting North Korean threats, in particular with regard to such red-line developments as the acquisition of nuclear weapons or transfers of nuclear-weapons materials to other countries or even terrorist groups. However, military action presents a high level of uncertainty and risk. North Korea possesses a huge military machine, and its ballistic missiles cover the whole of South Korea and could reach Japan as well. In addition, it is well known that North Korea also possesses chemical weapons as well as one or two nuclear devices. Without any certainty of taking out and suppressing North Korean conventional and nonconventional arsenals through a preemptive first strike, military action would be a sure trigger for another Korean war.

* The third option is to confront Pyongyang’s demands for direct talks by challenging North Korea to accept a comprehensive package deal that would not just obligate it to return to the Agreed Framework but also to go much further: the dismantling of all North Korea’s existing weapons of mass destruction programs and WMD delivery systems under a stringent bilateral and international inspection and verification regime in return for U.S. security guarantees and international economic assistance that will allow North Korea to address its chronic economic problems.

For the Bush administration to seriously consider this option, a couple of myths must first be debunked. One reason that the U.S. government is determined not to negotiate with North Korea is that it believes Pyongyang’s bad behavior should not be rewarded, and that the regime is untrustworthy.

Granted, these concerns are genuine. But if Washington’s ultimate objective is to disarm Pyongyang’s WMD programs, it needs to take concrete action rather than continue its stance of inaction or denial. After all, all arms-control agreements must be negotiated and verification measures developed and implemented to make sure that what is agreed to will be abided by.

The other myth is that North Korea has been intransigent all along and therefore not worthy of dealing with. It would be interesting and useful to carefully examine and analyze all official North Korean statements since last October’s confession — there have been suggestions that there have been times that Pyongyang’s “offers,” coming between otherwise hostile, highly charged rhetoric, have not been picked up by the Bush administration. The U.S. must now consider an alternative strategy before time runs out.

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