It's a crisis. The Bush administration needs to stop pretending otherwise and start talking directly with North Korea about that Stalinist regime's increasingly dangerous provocations. Dialogue should, at a minimum, persuade North Korea's lethargic neighbors that they must do more to quash dictator Kim Jong Il's quest for the world's most destructive devices.
Since last October, Pyongyang has admitted developing a nuclear weapons program, kicked out United Nations weapons inspectors, withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted a reactor. It may be about to crank up a reprocessing facility to produce nuclear weapons, a development so alarming the Clinton administration considered a military strike against the plant a decade ago.
On Sunday, four North Korean fighters roared to within 50 feet of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance jet that the Pentagon said was 150 miles off the North Korean coast. The planes might easily have smacked together. Wars have started over less.
Pyongyang is demanding talks with Washington, which rightly argues that negotiating now would reward North Korea for its threatening actions. But the alternative is to wait until the North develops more nuclear weapons -- it may already have one or two -- and tests them.
President Bush said Monday that military force was an option, although he preferred diplomacy. However, a number of experts on North Korea said the administration seemed to have assumed North Korea could not be dissuaded from becoming a nuclear weapons state. That raises the possibility that the desperately poor country might hand off weapons or plutonium to other nations or to terrorist groups willing to pay cash.
South Korea and China supply economic aid, food and fuel to North Korea. They need to tell Kim Jong Il that they'll cut him off unless he freezes and then dismantles his nuclear program. They should remind him that Washington has offered economic help if Pyongyang lets U.N. inspectors back in to verify an end to the weapons program.
Leaders in Pyongyang apparently see the 38,000 U.S. troops that have been stationed in South Korea for decades in a new light now that President Bush has included their totalitarian state in his "axis of evil." They may believe nuclear weapons are their only protection. And their recent actions prove them to be rash.
Such incendiary instability demands both flexibility and resolve from the U.S. Because Kim Jong Il's a bad guy, Bush needs to swallow his pride and talk to him.
If Pyongyang sets up roadblocks to negotiations or refuses to reverse its dangerous scramble to build nuclear bombs, the U.N. Security Council will have another chance to prove its commitment to world peace by isolating the regime.