Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, seems to have a sense of strategy, even though it may be driving his country to the brink of destruction. He will almost surely continue to take advantage of the heavy US commitment to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. If the US becomes engaged in a full-blown war in Iraq, Mr Kim is likely to escalate his nuclear challenge to dangerous levels, perhaps by detonating a nuclear test explosion.
The Bush administration is right to insist on a regional solution to the crisis, but wrong to reject bilateral talks with Mr Kim. Direct talks should be aimed at setting an agenda for multilateral talks. And that agenda should be as broad as America's negotiating partners can be persuaded to accept. "More for more" should be the objective.
According to recent reports, President George W. Bush remains firmly against talks with the man he "loathes", despite mounting North Korean provocations. But if direct negotiations are off the table, and if calculated deterrence fails, what is the alternative? Are we looking at another pre-emptive war? The issue is not regarded as a crisis by the US administration, at least in public, probably because it can handle only one crisis at a time. It may be able to handle only one war at a time, too.
Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, says America can fight and win two regional wars simultaneously, but the question involves more than coping with a North Korean infantry and artillery attack across the demilitarised zone just north of Seoul. A US attack on North Korea's nuclear facilities could succeed in destroying them with few civilian casualties. The Clinton administration seriously considered such a limited, pre-emptive attack because it thought a North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal was unacceptable. Under the firm but creative guidance of William Perry, then secretary of defence, the Clinton team rejected that plan in favour of another course: it sought to defuse the crisis by measures designed to make the North Koreans active participants in their own transformation. The apparent failure of that approach in practice may or may not be temporary, but the theory behind it should not necessarily be abandoned.
The Bush administration is doing its own contingency planning, to include, one hopes, a consideration of the aftermath of a pre-emptive strike. Deterring a North Korean attack on the south after a strike on Yongbyon probably cannot be left to the offensive threat posed by US and South Korean land forces in the peninsula. The US Navy will also be hard pressed. Just over half of its surface forces are currently on deployment, most in or near the Gulf, including six out of 12 carriers and about 20 out of 41 amphibious ships. The navy has already subcontracted critical tasks, such as keeping sea lanes open for continued deployments to Afghanistan, to the Indians, Japanese, Canadians and other Nato allies.
Thus, any effort to deter North Korea after a "surgical strike" on Yongbyon coming in the midst of a Middle East crisis, will rely overwhelmingly on American strike forces. The Pentagon, in fact, may be forced to recommend the threat of nuclear retaliation for any North Korean attack on the south, or on Japan, following elimination of the most threatening part of North Korea's nuclear potential. This, of course, would further alienate America's South Korean ally and shatter any coalition assembled for action against Pyongyang, thereby reinforcing the bilateral nature of the crisis.
But would it work to rein in Kim Jong Il? Probably not if he noticed the recent announcement that the Pentagon plans to accelerate the deployment of a missile defence system that even Mr Rumsfeld acknowledges is likely to be experimental at best. Not if he heard the most recent speech by Mr Bush, which pledged a heavy American involvement in the Middle East for decadesthe functional equivalent of the cold war's organising principle of containment, by which the US will bear any burden and pay any price to stabilise and democratise shaky regimes in the region. And not if he read the army chief of staff's estimates that a few hundred thousand US troops will be needed to maintain order in post-Hussein Iraq.
What does all this say to a desperate man like Mr Kim, who has little to lose by forcing America's hand for as long as he can? It probably says that he can take all of north-east Asia to the brink of war, or, at a minimum, hint at a radically different set of strategic relationships, which neither the US nor any of its allies has contemplated fully. How would Asia look during a protracted nuclear arms race? Or after a nuclear exchange? What are the implications of both for the US role in the region?
So long as there are no clear answers to those questions, President Bush should opt for direct talks with the North Korean leader, not to "reward bad behaviour" but to set up the multilateral forum necessary to settle the cold war's last major confrontation once and for all. But that will take this administration's equivalent of William Perry to do the heavy lifting, not to mention a more open mind at the top.