WASHINGTON — “The sure way to miss success is to miss the opportunity,” a wise man once observed. Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit Japan “at the earliest possible opportunity” during a bilateral security meeting in Washington on Feb. 19. When that visit takes place, Machimura must urge Rice to take the above maxim to heart if the United States, Japan and their regional allies are to be successful in bringing North Korea back to the six-party negotiating table.

Pyongyang’s Feb. 10 proclamation that it has manufactured nuclear weapons was an undisguised demand for the U.S. to take the Korean nuclear crisis off the diplomatic back burner. In early January, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, called North Korea the “No. 1” proliferation threat in the world.

Yet, in step with his administration’s long-standing hands-off policy toward the Korean Peninsula nuclear standoff, U.S. President George W. Bush only mentioned North Korea in passing in his State of the Union Address, saying that he and allies were working “to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.”

Brinkmanship is nothing new in Pyongyang’s diplomatic approach. However bellicose its rhetoric, North Korea does not seek direct confrontation, which would result in the regime’s annihilation. According to its news agency, North Korea’s intention is “to solve the issue through dialogue and negotiations.” Military is also the worst option for the U.S., especially when its forces are already overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Regrettably, Washington’s initial response to North Korea’s nuclear declaration was simply to put the onus back on Pyongyang, saying the statement only deepened the regime’s isolation. On Feb. 10, the U.S. State Department flatly rejected the need to review the current U.S. policy toward North Korea, which includes the refusal to negotiate directly with Pyongyang. This “business as usual” approach is dangerously misguided.

North Korea is blackmailing the U.S. With time, the conditions of blackmail are bound to get worse, and the diplomatic options for dealing with them will become scarcer. The next act of brinkmanship may come in the form of a nuclear test.

Thus it is not enough to simply urge Pyongyang to return to negotiations “expeditiously and without preconditions,” as the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee did in a statement after the recent meeting in Washington. Machimura must encourage his American counterpart to have the U.S. urgently and actively engaged in seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

The bad news is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sees Bush’s postelection push to end tyranny as an overt threat to his regime. Rice’s reference to North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” also caused consternation in Pyongyang. Taken together, this moralistic rhetoric seriously jeopardizes the possibility of a negotiated disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

The good news is that Rice believes that “the time for diplomacy is now.” Furthermore, during recent talks with a visiting Chinese envoy, Kim indicated Pyongyang’s openness to returning to six-party talks on the condition that the U.S. show “trustworthy sincerity and move.”

To renew diplomacy with North Korea, Rice must take two initial steps. First, an accomplished realist theoretician, she must put her academic training into action by approaching North Korea with exquisite realism, while carefully distancing herself from Bush’s moralism. Rice must continue emphasizing to North Korea that the U.S. seeks a negotiated disarmament, not regime change. However distasteful to Bush, this message is critical for regaining the fragile confidence of Pyongyang’s paranoid regime. This confidence-building process will take time, but it will lay the vital groundwork for renewed negotiations.

Second, Rice must recommend that Bush appoint a new high-level envoy to the peninsula. To have an effective policy on North Korea, a senior official has to be responsible and accountable for carrying it out. One good candidate for the job is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was the highest-ranking U.S. government official to meet with Kim.

Washington must also remember that Iran is watching how it handles North Korea. America’s apparent unwillingness and impotence in dealing with a belligerent and nuclear-armed North Korea signals to nuclear aspirants, like Iran, that an atomic weapon is a magic wand that can keep a superpower at bay. The best antidote to this message is a negotiated disarmament of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. If America demonstrates diplomatic adroitness with North Korea, resulting in the regime’s disarmament, a peaceful resolution of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions will also be within reach.

In declaring itself a nuclear power, North Korea has cried out for Washington’s attention. If the U.S. uses this opportunity to defuse the crisis diplomatically, it can bring the region a step closer to success. If it misses this opportunity, it will bring the peninsula closer to disaster.

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