LOS ANGELES — You have to be dumber than a brick to believe that the North Korea problem can be solved by anything other than diplomacy and negotiation. Even the Macho Man of South Korea seems to have been hit with a bout of annoying but inescapable reason.

“We have no choice but . . . to have peace settled through inter-Korean dialogue,” the oft-hawkish Lee Myung Bak recently squawked. Thank you very much indeed, Mr. South Korean President, for de-emphasizing non-peaceful options.

We start on this acrimonious note because war is no way to cope with North Korea. Sure, its baby-bottle-throwing antics do sometimes make you want to put its leader over your knee for a serious spanking. But this bears repeating: The road to a peaceful Korean Peninsula is not through a second Korean War. The one back in the 1950s was bad enough.

A policy of destroying the peninsula (remember: North Korea has nukes) in order to save it invokes more than a wacky whiff of Dr. Strangelove brought up to date. The South Korean public has got to watch its back.

Yet, that hawkish view, more or less, has been the prescription of former Bush foreign policy official John Bolton and others who are deeply skeptical of anything other than the punitive approach. Of course, no one in the region is remotely as scary as North Korea’s own maximum macho: Kim Jong Il.

Perhaps it is the conduct of this scariest of all caballeros that is actually keeping war from happening. After all, this past year alone, the Kim regime had new blood on its hands: that of 50 South Koreans, taken together, who died in the sinking of a South Korean warship and in the bizarre bombardment of a South Korea-controlled and inhabited island.

You see, when a family has one obvious over-the-top nut job in its midst, all others seem relatively sane, no matter how arguably bizarre their tics.

Kim of the North is often described as some tactical genius. I have never understood that, but this time his “genius” has managed to bring all the other interested nations close together, almost as if in a huddled circle of fear. Nations of vastly disparate interests have almost become family-like.

Behind the scenes China, long the backer of North Korea, has been pulling a few strings to rein in its longtime ideological and geopolitical buddy. Japan and South Korea, never exactly the best of friends for obvious reasons, have been hooking up in unprecedented ways. When you see something like this, you know something unusual is up.

Never have the central parties to the Korean crisis been more united in the view that aggressive adventurism on the peninsula will lead to nothing but trouble.

China has not overnight become some angel on this issue, but it can be counted on to act in its core national interest. For Beijing, the calculation is increasingly simple: economics. Putting up with pouty Pyongyang a whole lot longer makes no business sense at all. The bottom line is that the overall volume of its commercial trade with South Korea, Japan and the U.S. is so much larger than that with North Korea, you have to wonder why the Chinese even bother anymore.

So, here’s what the Obama administration needs to do. Forget about the braying Boltons of the world and, for starters, get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton up to Pyongyang, the capital of the North.

This shouldn’t be that difficult to work out, as long as Beijing, Moscow, Seoul and Tokyo agree that this is worth trying and that Pyongyang looks ready to play serious peace-ball. The game is denuclearization in return for normal relations with Washington and a very large aid package to get the North’s economy moving again.

It’s high time for the Obama A-team to put together a big-time diplomatic initiative for the Korean Peninsula. January’s diplomatic schedule is full of promise. Consider that the president’s very capable secretary of defense, Robert Gates, is to pay an important call on Beijing in a week.

And then, just 10 days later, China’s President Hu Jintao is to make a long-awaited visit to see the American president in Washington, where nothing less than a state dinner will be laid out for him and his entourage.

If this is not the time for all parties to put it bluntly to Pyongyang that its game is up and the moment has come to settle, when will it be time? After a gruesome, bloody, tragic — and perhaps nuclear — war on the Korean Peninsula? That’s a moment rather too late.

American columnist Tom Plate, the author of the “Giants of Asia” book series (February: “Conversations With Mahathir Mohamad”), is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.