WASHINGTON — It's only March, but we can safely award the 2003 trophy for most risible editorial pronouncement. It goes, as usual, to The New York Times, whose Tuesday editorial calling for the Bush administration to negotiate directly with North Korea (the United States has refused to do so until North Korea stops its nuclear program) ends with the following pronunciamento: "The place for insisting that bad North Korean behavior will not be rewarded is at the negotiating table."
Read that again and savor it. This is transparently, definitionally wrong. The negotiating table is a place where you give and take. The one place where you cannot insist that bad behavior will not be rewarded is the negotiating table — or there would be no negotiations.
The battleship Missouri was not a negotiating table. On the Missouri, we made unconditional demands. At a negotiating table, you make concessions. That's what negotiations mean. Indeed, the very act of acceding to Pyongyang's demand for bilateral talks is a major concession.
Sometimes appeasement is the only available policy. While advocating concessions, however, one mustn't pretend that nothing is being given away. The time for appeasement may indeed have arrived, but it is too dangerous and important a policy to be carried out amid fantasies.
If we agree to direct talks with North Korea, it will be for the purpose not of lecturing them on their international obligations, but of making concessions. Should we? We need realism here, and the reality is that in the last two months, the U.S. position in Korea has dramatically deteriorated:
1. We discovered that we have zero diplomatic leverage in the region. We thought the neighborhood would help quiet the crisis by putting pressure on North Korea. South Korea, China, Russia and Japan have done nothing. Less than nothing. China fears the collapse of North Korea will lead to refugees and chaos and loss of South Korean investment; South Korea is afraid of war and the devastating effect it would have on Seoul.
The common denominator in this collective abdication is that if pressure were applied to North Korea and a war broke out today, it would be fought locally and the locals would suffer. If the war could be postponed for several years, it could then reach American soil. North Korea will then have the ability, with missiles and nuclear weapons, to attack the American homeland with devastating effect.
The neighbors, therefore, would prefer that if there is to be war, it be tomorrow. They are quite content to ignore the problem and kick the can down the road indefinitely.
2. The prewar hiatus in Iraq has dragged on forever. The predicted winter war never took place. It would by now have freed the United States to turn its attention — and its military resources — to seriously confront Pyongyang.
3. North Korea is daily escalating the brinkmanship. It is nearing the irrational. Last weekend it buzzed a routine U.S. surveillance plane with fighter jets. Meanwhile, the United States is preoccupied with Iraq. We no longer have the power to fight two wars at once. And the North Koreans know it. They are pushing their advantage to the edge.
The issue now is not just stopping North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea's bellicosity today is such that the reckless and erratic Kim Jong Il may want to take advantage of America's temporary weakness to either initiate or provoke war, make a quick strike south and redraw the map of Korea — just as Egypt's shocking 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal redrew the map of the Middle East.
What to do? Because of Iraq, the United States cannot contemplate a military confrontation today. Iraq has stretched our military, political and diplomatic resources to the limit. The only alternative policy is to temporize, to make a series of concessions to North Korea as a way to buy time.
Just time. We will not be able to restore a semblance of deterrence to the Korean peninsula until the Iraq war is over. In the interim, North Korea will have to be propitiated. First with direct negotiations. Then with other blandishments, economic and diplomatic.
This is appeasement, but it should be temporary appeasement. The blandishments should be immediately withdrawn as soon as Iraq is over and we can marshal enough strength in the Northern Pacific to credibly threaten military action. At that point, bad behavior stops being rewarded. The free ride is over, and we begin again making serious demands about North Korea's rogue nuclear program.
We will have to. We cannot wait until Kim's nuclear reach extends to the American homeland. By then it will be too late. Right now, however, is too early.
Washington Post Writers Group