THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION HAILED as a victory North Korea's announcement in late July that it would participate in six-party talks on its nuclear program. The White House had insisted for months that Pyongyang's illicit activities were a regional issue best resolved in a multilateral setting. But unless the administration enters the new talks willing to negotiate, its victory on how many countries get to sit at the table will prove fleeting.
If past is prologue, the late summer meeting will produce sparks. North Korean and U.S. diplomats have met twice since the nuclear crisis resurfaced a year ago. Both times Pyongyang surprised the Americans by admitting rather than denying its nuclear ambitions. Last October, North Korean officials told James Kelly, the head of the U.S. delegation, that the North had an illicit uranium-enrichment program. Then, in a meeting this April, Kelly's counterpart informed him that Pyongyang had produced nuclear weapons, and that it could and would "display them," "make more" or "transfer them." In both cases, the North Korean statements ended the talks.
Don't be surprised, therefore, if this pattern repeats itself in the latest round of meetings. The evidence suggests that North Korea has finished extracting plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that had been kept in storage as part of the 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration--giving it material for half a dozen more weapons. Should Pyongyang admit what Washington fears, the talks will likely disband in acrimony.
North Korea's nuclear activities provide a stiff test for George W. Bush. His strategy for dealing with North Korea--and most other foreign-policy issues--has thus far proceeded from three principles. The first might be described as the "ABC" principle--Anything But Clinton. Bush entered office deriding Bill Clinton's foreign-policy stewardship. The mere fact, then, that Clinton was willing to talk with Pyongyang was enough to persuade Bush to rule out further discussions. "One of the things that is important to understanding North Korea," Bush said recently, "is that the past policy of trying to engage bilaterally didn't work."
Bush's second guiding principle has been to shun negotiations with evil leaders. The reason is simple: Despots such as North Korea's Kim Jong-Il (who Bush mocked as a "pygmy") cheat on the agreements they sign. The result, the White House argues, is that negotiations perpetuate problems rather than solve them.
Third, Bush believes that he can solve most foreign-policy problems by flexing America's considerable muscle. When pushed, his natural instinct is to push back. In the case of North Korea, that has meant refusing to play the game according to Pyongyang's terms. When the North wanted bilateral talks, Bush insisted on multilateral talks. When the North wanted to discuss the nuclear issues, Bush insisted on broadening the agenda to include missiles, conventional weapons and human rights. When the North blustered about nuclear threats, Bush said he would not give in to blackmail.
Unfortunately for Bush--and the world--his North Korean strategy has proven disastrous. ABC is not a policy. While the administration was applauding itself for refusing to give in, North Korea became the world's ninth nuclear power. Within a few years, its uranium-enrichment program will enable it to produce three nuclear weapons a year. By the end of the decade, its plutonium program will be capable of producing 25 to 50 weapons annually.
The consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea are profound. Pyongyang has missiles that can reach its neighbors, and it is developing missiles capable of reaching the United States. Just as frightening, cash-poor North Korea has shown that it will sell whatever it can produce--and who doubts that there are ready buyers for a small suitcase of plutonium? This raises the nightmarish prospect that Bush inveighed against in his "axis of evil" speech: a nexus of terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction. …