Only a bold initiative by the United States can break the impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The recent six-nation talks in Beijing produced, unsurprisingly, a stalemate. Afterward, the Pyongyang regime said it saw no point in future talks. Although North Korea probably will relent under pressure from China and Russia, there is scant likelihood new talks would produce any better results without America establishing a dramatically different agenda.
North Korea asserts it pursues a nuclear weapons program because of fear that, otherwise, U.S. military force may impose regime change, as it in Iraq. It is far likelier, however, that fear of America's intentions is but one reason Pyongyang is creating a nuclear arsenal. Other reasons may include the prestige of being a member of the exclusive global nuclear weapons club; the ability of a nuclear North Korea to blackmail its non-nuclear East Asian neighbors; and the prospect of lucrative revenues from selling nuclear technology or warheads.
There is one sure way to find out what North Korea really wants. The United States should put a "grand bargain" on the table. Washington should agree to a nonaggression pact and full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations with Pyongyang in exchange for the simultaneous implementation of a fully verifiable agreement (including a rigorous inspections system) to end North Korea's nuclear program.
Such concessions would cost the U.S. little. Even the most reckless of Washington hawks hesitate about advocating an attack on North Korea to overthrow the current regime -- however much we all want to see that odious system on the ash heap of history. Using military force against North Korea could trigger a major war on the Korean Peninsula and perhaps a broad conflict that could enflame much of East Asia. That is a risk no rational person would want to take. So giving North Korea "security assurances" (i.e., a nonaggression pact) merely renounces an option we would not want to pursue anyway.
Similarly, establishing diplomatic and economic ties with Pyongyang is a step the United States should have taken long ago. Indeed, throughout the 1970s and '80s, a key component of American foreign policy in the region was a proposal to Moscow and Beijing for cross-recognition of the two Korean states. At the end of the Cold War, Russia and China both established formal ties with South Korea, but the U.S. never kept its part of the bargain by recognizing North Korea.
Diplomatic recognition does not imply approval of a regime. We have diplomatic relations with a good many odious and repressive governments (Saudi Arabia's comes to mind). Maintaining such relations merely acknowledges it is in our interest to deal with the country in question.
Likewise, economic ties do not imply approval. In North Korea's case, ending economic sanctions might help open that closed and bizarre country to the outside world. It is a strategy we used successfully with China in the 1970s -- a country that had recently undergone the convulsive Cultural Revolution.
Most important, offering a "grand bargain" would create an acid test for Pyongyang. If North Korea is developing nuclear weapons only because it fears the U.S., Pyongyang should accept the proposal unhesitatingly. Even an intrusive system of inspections should be no barrier to such an agreement.
Conversely, if North Korea demands other concessions or balks at inspections, we would know Pyongyang is not using its nuclear program merely as a bargaining chip but is deadly serious about joining the global nuclear weapons club.
At least we would know where we stand and could consider relevant policy options. This would be far preferable to another round of pointless talks perpetuating ambiguity and impasse.