- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

In the days after North Korea jumpstarted its nuclear program, the Bush administration outlined a very sensible approach to deal with the hermit kingdom. In a wholesale reversal of the failed Clinton policy of buying peace and security on the Korean peninsula, the United States would now dedicate itself to choking off the steady diet of world aid that maintains Pyongyang. Tidily packaged as "tailored containment," the White House would no longer negotiate with North Korea until it behaved as a responsible member of the international community. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "If the North Koreans reached out and started to make sensible statements and stopped taking actions, which frankly are provocative … we would see what might be appropriate at that point."
So far, the provocations have continued. The international inspectors charged with verifying North Korea's compliance with nuclear prohibitions have been evicted, and Pyongyang continues to take steps that suggest it will restart its nuclear weapons factories. "There is a limit to [North Koreas] forbearance and patience," the country's official news agency warned Tuesday. "The U.S. is well advised to ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its hostile policy to stifle [North Korea]." And with that, the Bush administration agreed to talk.
Washington was under no illusions that tailored containment would be a tricky strategy to pursue. For a host of reasons, regional powers Russia and China are reluctant to get tough on the North, and the United States cannot go it alone. But the Bush administration was confident that given enough time, and enough rope to hang itself, the North's escalatory actions would finally spur these nations to act. The inherent understanding was that things would have to get worse before they got better.
Regrettably, it now seems the Bush administration lacks the discipline to hold to this strategy. Increasingly, this week has brought disturbing signs of U.S. inconsistency. Just as in the debate over Iraq, the rift between the administration's hawks (characterized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a policy of firmness) and doves (Secretary of State Colin Powell and dialogue) has bled into the debate over North Korea.
The first false step came Tuesday. After declaring that it would not enter into dialogue with Pyongyang, the Bush administration made a wholesale reversal. In an embarrassing admission slipped quietly into a communique inked with Japan and South Korea, the United States announced it will "talk" with the North. "However, the U.S. delegation stressed that the United States will not provide quid pro quos to North Korea to live up to its existing obligations," the joint statement read.
Whatever that disclaimer, "talks" are the diplomatic euphemism for the beginning of negotiations, and just a day later the United States moved a step closer. On Wednesday, Mr. Powell signaled that the Bush administration may include signed assurances that the United States has no intentions of attacking the North. Such a concession is Pyongyang's most recent precondition for behaving, and that the Bush administration is considering it is nothing short of a quid pro quo.
Of course, non-aggression pacts are a far cry from the Clinton appeasement packages that maintained Pyongyang. Now, the Bush administration, with its striking reversals this week, has sent confusing signals to the international community at a time when consistency and firmness are needed most. The United States cannot isolate Pyongyang by talking to it.

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