North Korea oppresses its people, has broken international agreements and is moving rapidly to develop nuclear weapons. President Bush calls this a regional issue, but if Pyongyang starts reprocessing plutonium in the next few weeks, it will present a more imminent global threat than Iraq does.
The decision to focus on Iraq rather than North Korea shows that deterrence works, but in this case what it shows is North Korea's ability to deter the United States. With more than 11,000 artillery tubes hidden in caves in the demilitarized zone, North Korea can devastate Seoul even without weapons of mass destruction. This reality prevented the Clinton administration from executing a preemptive strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in 1994.
The Bush administration came into office vowing to be tougher, both in rhetoric and deeds. Its scorn for former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of reaching out to the North had a negative effect on both sides of the demilitarized zone.
Now the administration is faced with a dilemma. South Korea's new president is not keen on military action, and North Korea is taking advantage of our preoccupation with Iraq to practice nuclear brinkmanship.
In the last few months, North Korea has broken the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze its nuclear program, withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expelled international inspectors and restarted its nuclear reactor.
If it starts reprocessing the spent fuels rods at Yongbyon, it could produce enough plutonium for six bombs within six months, to add to the 1 1/2 or two bombs' worth that was produced more than a decade ago. Using missiles or planes, Pyongyang could hit Seoul or Tokyo today.
Some in the administration ask what difference this reprocessing would make. The answer is enough plutonium to make an arsenal that could drive Japan to change its nonnuclear status, with enough left over to sell to Al Qaeda.
North Korea says it is seeking bilateral talks with the United States and a guarantee that we will not attack. The Bush administration has said it will not reward bad behavior and will talk only in a multilateral framework.
It has hoped that China, the country closest to North Korea, will pull our diplomatic chestnuts out of the fire. But China has conflicting objectives. Although it does not want a nuclear North, neither does it want to destabilize its neighbor; it also claims to have limited leverage.
The Bush administration is behaving as though time is on our side. This is understandable, for Iraq is absorbing all the oxygen in Washington these days. The White House might feel that success in a Gulf war would strengthen our bargaining hand with Pyongyang. But this focus on only Iraq is myopic. If North Korea starts to reprocess its spent fuel rods during the first days of a war with Iraq, it will have crossed a crucial line at a time of our maximum distraction.
Bush should not take this risk. Instead, he should swallow his pride and start talks before it is too late. He should make clear that we regard reprocessing of the spent fuel as the line that must not be crossed. Specifically, he should offer a guarantee that the U.S. will not use military force against North Korea so long as talks are going on and North Korea does not begin reprocessing.
On his recent trip to Asia, Secretary of State Colin Powell found the countries in the region willing to help but wanting the U.S. to start bilateral talks. The administration should offer to meet bilaterally and multilaterally. We want China, Russia, Japan and South Korea involved but should not use them as an excuse to delay the start of talks.
We should draw up a road map of possible futures for North Korea. One path would involve a series of steps involving security guarantees, recognition and access to global markets and resources that might allow Kim Jong Il's regime to reform and survive. The price the North would have to pay is the verified end of its nuclear and missile programs. On the other path, Pyongyang would continue those programs, with dire prospects for the regime's survival.
The sooner we sit down with North Korea and present these clear alternatives, the better our chances of dealing with the most imminent nuclear threat that we face.
Joseph S. Nye is dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "The Paradox of American Power" (Oxford University Press, 2002).