President Bush and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il are both hostages of the nuclear stalemate. The Bush zero-tolerance policy for North Korean nuclear weapons and the Kim military-first policy for national security have produced a “no-way-out” situation. North Korea’s nuclear program cannot be eliminated short of a regime change, which probably means war. But North Korea’s neighbors, including our allies Japan and South Korea, are strongly opposed to war. Under the circumstances, the best that President Bush can do is appoint a high-level official to open dialogue with North Korea, one-on-one if necessary, in order to assure Kim that he will not be attacked unless he exports nuclear materials to a third country. The President should also make it clear that the United States will not accept North Korea “as is,” but intends to continue working to open the country to outside influences and bring basic human rights to the North Korean people.
At the time [in the mid-1970s], [North Korea] wasn't doing so badly. After the Korean War, their economy was rebuilt, it became a functioning industrial state, still very aid-dependent — but it wouldn't have seemed like such a bad bet, under the circumstances.