WASHINGTON — As Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill returns to Northeast Asia for talks with U.S. allies on North Korea’s nuclear program, the future of negotiations to resolve this terrifying matter has never been bleaker.

North Korea appears unwilling to return to the six-party process involving both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. The Bush administration has no particularly fresh ideas for wooing Pyongyang back, and in fact understandably rejects the very notion of trying to woo such a regime.

And now China is criticizing the U.S. approach to the talks as insufficiently flexible and diplomatic. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, knowing that he can continue to trade and receive aid from both China and South Korea, and knowing that U.S. forces are tied down elsewhere with no good options for using force against his country in any event, is unlikely to feel much pressure to change his path.

This situation represents a major setback for American global interests. An economically destitute regime with a history of exporting virtually anything it can to make money now has up to eight nuclear weapons and is threatening to make more — and we have no promising strategy for how to deal with it.

A few guidelines are incontrovertible for improving our prospects on the peninsula:

* U.S. President George W. Bush is right that North Korea cannot be rewarded for breaking three treaties and destabilizing Northeast Asia in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

* Bush is wrong to think his current ap proach to the peninsula stands much chance of success. As long as China openly criticizes U.S. policy — and South Korea does so as well — prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough are next to nil.

* North Korea right now sees few incentives, positive or negative, to negotiate to give up its bombs.

* While a North Korean nuclear arsenal might not be the end of the world, it is extremely dangerous. The fact that we are beginning to get used to its existence does not make it acceptable.

Together, these observations require a new strategy. While the two of us support direct U.S.-North Korea negotiations to complement the six-party process, we agree with the Bush administration that such talks would not themselves amount to a new strategy. Smooth diplomacy can help in situations like this, but when dealing with a ruthless regime, one needs to get the strategic fundamentals right. We need U.S. leadership and a serious mix of carrots and sticks.

But how to offer carrots when we cannot reward North Korean provocations with appeasement? And how to muster sticks when we cannot credibly threaten force –except perhaps as a truly extreme last resort — and when key countries are unwilling to consider economic sanctions? One key is to recognize that when you have a seemingly unsolvable problem, enlarge it.

The other important insight is to learn from the new U.S. approach to Iran policy, where teaming with our European allies is seemingly convincing them to be willing to threaten sanctions if talks fail provided that we show sincere willingness to offer Iran benefits if the talks succeed — something that is noticeably missing in our approach to North Korea.

We need to try to push North Korea toward broad political, economic and military reform. That should be the core of our strategy, rather than endless debate about what type of diplomatic setting is appropriate for discussions or what type of language administration officials should and should not use when talking about the North Korean regime in public. It is impossible to pursue such a strategy without being fully engaged, and being seen as fully engaged.

To the extent that North Korea verifiably and meaningfully reforms, we should promise to help it with its efforts. To the extent it does not, we should have the agreement of Beijing and Seoul that tougher measures will ultimately be needed, and convince those countries to say so publicly. The premise behind Bush’s “Bold Approach” of April 2002 — demand more, but be willing to give more — remains valid and would be supported by others in the region.

There is precedent, of course, for structural reform even within a communist autocracy. In fact, there are two successful precedents — China and Vietnam. Admittedly, there are also failed precedents, at least from the perspective of the leaders trying to carry out those reforms. Kim therefore may not like the idea of accelerating the very gradual economic reforms in his country now under way, and combining them with other changes. Nor will his military immediately welcome the other changes, besides denuclearization, it must accept for economic reform to have a chance of success, beginning with deep cuts in the hugely oversized conventional forces.

That is why, in addition to offering major trade and aid benefits if Kim accepts this type of process, we also need to make credible the threat of sanctions if he does not. But any hope we have of getting China and South Korea to agree to such a strategy that forces North Korea to a stark choice over its future requires that we also show flexibility and a willingness to be helpful and generous if Pyongyang will play ball.

The Bush administration is executing a failing policy on North Korea at present. But there are ways to take the president’s strong principled views on the subject and use them to help construct a new strategy with much better prospects of success. Unfortunately, the time for doing so may be drawing to a close.

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