NORTH KOREA this past weekend escalated its defiance of international norms by disabling the cameras that monitor its nuclear sites and breaking the seals that had kept 8,000 spent fuel rods off-limits. "As the spent fuel contains a significant amount of plutonium," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea's action "is of great nonproliferation concern." To put it less diplomatically, one of the world's most ruthless and terrorist-supporting gangster regimes just took a large step toward enhancing its nuclear arsenal -- and its ability to supply nuclear materials to other bad actors in the world. In response to this provocation, the Bush administration is justly resisting pressure to offer North Korea what would amount to rewards for its behavior. It also is playing down the seriousness of the crisis. The second tactic may serve the first, but it carries risks of its own.
Pressure to negotiate comes from South Korea, which just elected an engagement-minded president, and from former Clinton administration officials and others. They are right to say that talking should never be ruled out. But President Bush is right that North Korea, having violated the last agreement, should not be offered new incentives to do what it had promised to do in the first place. In 1994, when the IAEA determined that North Korea might be hiding large amounts of nuclear materials, the Clinton administration struck a deal that helped make North Korea, with perhaps the most loathsome regime on Earth, one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, principally food and fuel. In return, North Korea "froze" its most visible and dangerous nuclear program. Yet it never gave up its nuclear ambitions or programs. It never accounted for the missing plutonium that sparked the 1994 crisis in the first place. It has been secretly enriching uranium. Intelligence officials believe it possesses one or two weapons already. If it begins working with the spent fuel rods, it is only months away from obtaining more.
The Bush administration says it will rally its allies to isolate North Korea diplomatically. This is not just an American problem, U.S. officials say. If North Korea continues to defy the IAEA, United Nations sanctions may follow. No one is talking of "regime change" or military action.
All this may sound reassuring, and the administration is right not to be pushed into panicky negotiations. Having won concessions for misbehavior in the past, the North Korean regime won't be quickly convinced this time that the gambit will fail. The Bush administration is right, too, not to let North Korea distract it from its mission in Iraq. Letting Saddam Hussein off the hook would only embolden Kim Jong Il further.
But neither can Iraq be permitted to distract the administration from the danger posed by North Korea. There are no easy policy options now, but the first step is to be clear about the nature of the regime, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was yesterday. "The leadership of the country is currently repressing its people, starving its people, has large numbers of its people in concentration camps," he said. Regime change may not be a feasible short-term goal, given the dangers of war to millions of Koreans. But it's likely the only way to solve the nonproliferation challenge -- and end the near enslavement of 22 million Koreans.