THE DEBATE over what to do about North Korea, an exceptionally difficult question, has been further complicated by distorted descriptions of the problem by both the Bush administration and its critics. Over the weekend Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that North Korea has been known to have two nuclear weapons since the early 1990s. But the finding of U.S. intelligence during the Clinton administration was not that Pyongyang built those warheads -- only that it probably could have. Barring new and unreported intelligence, the weapons themselves have never been confirmed -- and that distinction is important. If, as Mr. Powell suggested, North Korea is to be considered an existing nuclear power, then its current steps toward producing further material for bombs are not necessarily so critical; after all, as Mr. Powell said, "what are they going to do with another two or three nuclear weapons when they're starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that is functioning?" Such logic is convenient to the administration's strategy of playing down the North Korean threat and postponing an active response to it. But if it's not certain that this murderous and immoral regime already has a bomb, then it is important to do whatever can be done now to stop what increasingly looks like a drive by dictator Kim Jong Il to produce an arsenal as quickly as possible. Perhaps there is no way to stop him; but the administration would be wrong to prematurely concede North Korea's standing as a nuclear power.

Some outside critics have been arguing that the way to end what they insist is a crisis is to agree to the direct negotiations that Mr. Kim craves. It's said that the North doesn't really want much: just an assurance that it won't be subject to attack by the United States, and a resumption of the economic aid it needs to survive. Yet President Bush has already publicly said that the United States has no intention of taking military action against North Korea. Mr. Powell also stressed that channels are open between the two governments. The reality is that North Korea wants not just talks but full political recognition and engagement by the United States; it seeks not just an assurance of its security but a formal nonaggression treaty with Washington. This is not a mere matter of process, or face-saving: These are political milestones that have been a central goal of North Korean policy for decades. The Bush administration should not make such concessions, morally objectionable as they would be, unless there is to be a fundamental change in North Korean behavior.

On the facing page today, two former senior officials in the Clinton administration argue that Pyongyang should be required to take a number of new steps in exchange for an end to its isolation, including the complete dismantling of any weapons, the removal of nuclear material from the country, and agreement to comprehensive inspections. Such provisions would be a significant advance on the 1994 agreement negotiated by the Clinton team; but we would argue that more is necessary, including some commitment by Mr. Kim to end his exports of weapons of mass destruction and respect the human rights of the 22 million Koreans he holds captive. It is possible, even likely, that all those demands would be rejected; Mr. Kim and his military have never given up the nuclear option and may be irrevocably committed to it now. But by communicating a clear and specific set of terms, the Bush administration can put the onus for action on Pyongyang, rather than on Washington, without caving in to the demand for formal negotiations. It can also increase its chances of building a coalition, both in Asia and in the U.N. Security Council, that can work to contain a threat that -- call it a crisis, or not -- isn't likely to go away.