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Careless on North Korea

IN HIS refusal to revise a failed policy for North Korea, President Bush is not only increasing the risks of nuclear proliferation; he is also alienating US allies in Asia and exacerbating tensions among Asian powers. Political forces in South Korea and Japan that have been favorably inclined toward the United States want no part of the administration's reliance on a coercive strategy, as opposed to negotiations, to remove the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons.

The North's neighbors were hardly reassured by the administration's insouciant reaction to signs suggesting that the North has shut down its nuclear reactor at Pyong--yang -- an action that could lead to spent fuel rods being taken from the reactor, placed for a time in a cooling pond, and then removed so plutonium for two or three more nuclear bombs can be extracted and stored out of sight of US satellites.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il conducts his diplomacy by means of belligerent invective and fanciful claims. But unlike Iran's leaders, who say they will never renounce what they insist is their right to enrich uranium, North Korea has for years been offering to peddle away its nuclear program in exchange for a nonaggression pact with the United States and economic benefits.

It makes no sense for Bush to go on refusing to seek a deal with North Korea after he wisely approved the negotiations with Iran that are being conducted by Britain, France, and Germany. Bush consented to those negotiations out of a sensible desire to repair relations with America's European allies that had been strained during Bush's first term.

Bush's reluctance to seek genuine negotiations with North Korea has roiled relations with key Asian allies and clients. Signs of their displeasure appeared soon after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a rapid tour of Asian capitals last month, reiterating the administration's refusal to explore a deal with North Korea and instead threatening to ask for UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Japan, South Korea, and China all want Washington to cut a deal with Pyongyang and all dislike the talk of sanctions.

After Rice's return to Washington, South Korean leaders began speaking of playing a balancing role in Asia, which means keeping their distance from the United States and Japan and moving closer to Beijing. Meanwhile, American encouragement of Japan's rearmament, combined with efforts to enlist Tokyo in Bush's hard-line approach to North Korea, has had an effect on China. Complaining that Japan is colluding with the United States in a policy to contain China, Beijing has stirred up protests against the Japanese.

Bush should try to strike a deal with the North Koreans because that is the way to prevent Al Qaeda from one day buying a nuclear weapon in Pyongyang. But another good reason is to prevent any further turmoil involving relations with America's Asian allies in Seoul and Tokyo and with its crucial creditor in Beijing.

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