In response to the rapidly worsening crisis surrounding North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the George W. Bush administration has quietly reversed itself and agreed to restart direct talks with Pyongyang-and none too soon. Recently, North Korea has said it would unfreeze its plutonium facilities and withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The shift in the administration's strategy, along with South Korea's mediation offer, provides a stronger basis for a peaceful solution to end North Korea's defiant and dangerous bid to become the world's ninth nuclear-weapon state.
The Bush policy adjustment follows the failure of the administration's attempts to coerce Pyongyang to implement its denuclearization commitments and threatening punitive economic measures if it does not. Upon its arrival in office, the Bush administration abandoned its predecessor's policy of engagement, which had produced important, if limited, success in freezing Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile activities. In early 2002, Bush also stoked North Korean security fears by naming it as one of three "axis of evil" states subject to the administration's policy of pre-emption.
Following the Bush administration's announcement that North Korea admitted it was pursuing prohibited uranium-enrichment capabilities in October, the White House organized a strong response, including cutting off heavy-fuel oil shipments. But the situation worsened as the United States stubbornly refused to talk with the North until it verifiably ended the uranium work. Not surprisingly, Pyongyang has reopened its more advanced plutonium-based nuclear weapons facilities and expelled international inspectors.
As of now, it is estimated that North Korea could-in less than six months-separate enough plutonium for six bombs. If North Korea builds nuclear weapons, a dangerous nuclear action-reaction cycle involving Japan, South Korea, and China would likely ensue. In addition, given Pyongyang's propensity to proliferate dangerous weapons technology, that nuclear material could very well be sold to terrorists or other states seeking nuclear weapons.
Caught between North Korea's brinksmanship and the absence of effective U.S. leadership, South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun has launched an important initiative to restart direct talks with Pyongyang and to develop a formula for a new agreement to end …