The United States is willing to participate in talks with North Korea, but that is not the real issue. The real issue now, as always, is what that means.
For the United States, that has historically meant good-faith talks aimed at striking bargains that we intend to keep, on terms that leave both sides better off.
For North Korea, this could mean food, power and perhaps some minimal respectability as a member of the international community.
For the United States, its allies and the world, it could mean an end to Pyongyang's nuclear threats and weapons proliferation, and a reasonable basis for further international engagement -- particularly on the delicate question of North-South rapprochement.
In the past, however, for North Korea, talking has meant demanding payment today for a promise of disarmament tomorrow. And it evidently has also meant later trying to sell the same broken promise over and over, all the while holding its neighbors hostage to military threats. To state the obvious, this is not talks; it is blackmail.
The Bush administration, to its great credit (and unlike its predecessor), has simply refused to play the role of Alice in Pyongyang's wonderland of pretend diplomacy. Events since the naive and ill-considered 1994 framework agreement that the United States and allies entered into with North Korea have convinced Pyongyang that crime can pay. So now: talk, yes; extortion, no.
But it is not enough to point out that accommodation and appeasement have not worked and will not work. North Korea's eccentric government and its army, missiles and nuclear programs are all too real. So what should we do?
All North Korea understands is strength and resolve. So first we must recognize, as the Bush administration clearly does, that paper promises from a negotiating partner that cannot be trusted will not solve the problem. There must be verifiable actions, not just words.
We must privately remind North Korea that the U.S. has defense treaties with South Korea and Japan and will honor them with all the means at our disposal, just as we honored our obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the four decades necessary to contain the Soviet military threat. We have had practice; we're good at it; we do have the means; and we're also prepared to keep doing it on the Korean peninsula.
And without overreacting to North Korea's threats, we should take them with the utmost seriousness. At some point we should beef up U.S. forces on the peninsula, but given its concerns in other parts of the world, the administration may wish to defer that issue. In any event, I am confident that our military planners will be prepared for whatever may come.
In 1994 I called for the United States to go to the U.N. Security Council and obtain political and economic sanctions against the North for breach of its international obligations, much as we did against Iraq in 1990. Because we did not do so then, we face a more difficult problem today. But at some point -- possibly in response to a complaint by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- U.N. sanctions must follow.
I would favor complete economic and political isolation, but at a minimum North Korea's weapons proliferation program -- the sale of missiles and other weapons and technology -- must be shut down by an arms embargo that permits interdiction. We may have been compelled by international law to release the missiles recently shipped to Yemen, but, with a U.N. mandate, that should be the last time.
We must also continue deploying missile defense systems to protect ourselves and our allies from the possibility that North Korea, through cold miscalculation or hot anger, begins to think the unthinkable.
None of this is easy, but it is the only approach that has a chance of success. As we do these things, it is critical that South Korea remember that its own security and prosperity are in large part the fruits of its defense treaty with the U.S., and that frustrations about the difficulties of living next door to armed Stalinist totalitarians should be directed at them, not at us.
One South Korean official has even said that containment is an "antiquated and ineffective relic of the Cold War." Wrong! On the Korean peninsula, sadly, the Cold War has never ended. Armed containment there is a proven policy. And diplomacy works best when it is proffered in a mailed fist.
James A. Baker III was the 61st U.S. secretary of State.