THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S offer of talks to North Korea yielded several immediate benefits. It ended what looked like a state of paralysis in Washington over how to respond to the North's provocative and dangerous steps toward producing a nuclear arsenal, and it closed -- at least temporarily -- what had been a widening gap between the United States and South Korea. It put the onus squarely on Kim Jong Il's Communist dictatorship to comply with its numerous previous commitments on nuclear weapons and made it more likely that a broad international coalition could be constructed to pressure Pyongyang. A joint statement by the United States, South Korea and Japan stressed that "North Korea's relations with the entire international community hinge on its taking prompt and verifiable action to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program," and South Korea's representative stipulated that it will be up to the North to make the first move. There's no telling how an aberrant despot such as Mr. Kim might respond; but if he now refuses to discuss the dismantling of his nuclear program, he will risk complete isolation.

The administration contends that any dialogue will fall short of a negotiation; it is, officials say, only willing to talk about how North Korea will go about dismantling its nuclear facilities. In reality, it's clear that a bargaining process will now begin, if Pyongyang signs on. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was already hinting Tuesday that a "bold approach" to U.S.-North Korean relations, developed last year before Pyongyang admitted to its secret program of uranium enrichment, could be put back on the table if Mr. Kim is forthcoming. The Bush administration hesitated for more than a year before deciding to make that offer, repelled by the idea of bargaining with a regime that the president recently said he loathed. We sympathize with his reluctance: Taking actions that could help prop up a murderous dictatorship and prolong the extraordinary suffering of its 22 million people is morally repugnant. But the administration has decided that military action is, for now, unthinkable, a conclusion also reached by the Clinton administration nine years ago. If there is to be no preemption, the only alternative to talks is what the administration last month was calling "tailored containment" -- a fancy way of describing inaction. But inaction is not acceptable: The United States cannot passively concede to North Korea nuclear power status or stand by while it constructs an arsenal.

If there are now to be talks, the administration must enter them with some clear principles. One it has rightly laid out is a refusal to make any new concessions to North Korea in exchange for a repeat of the commitments it has failed to uphold. Critics who blame the administration for triggering Mr. Kim's behavior are right to fault some of the president's rhetoric -- but they seem to forget that the North broke its commitment to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons before Mr. Bush was elected. Pyongyang should be given a final chance to dismantle its nuclear programs, this time under more stringent conditions and with tighter verification procedures. Only if this deal can be struck should talks proceed on some of the favors Mr. Kim craves from Washington, such as increased economic aid or a nonaggression treaty with the United States. And no such concessions should be granted unless the regime is ready to embrace far-reaching change, including an end to its missile program and its foreign military sales, a reduction of the forces that threaten South Korea, and concrete improvements in its treatment of its people. Talking to the North may be the best of a bad series of options; but that doesn't mean the Bush administration should change its evaluation of Kim Jong Il's regime. As has been demonstrated all too clearly in the past few weeks, it remains one of the world's most noxious evils.