Given the recent history -- two sets of agreements with the United States broken by North Korea within a decade -- it is difficult to understand why so many nations are now urging bilateral negotiations to "solve" a crisis that is entirely of North Korea's creation.

Pyongyang says it wants from the United States a nonaggression treaty plus demands to be unveiled in the course of the negotiation -- in return for selling us yet another "standstill" agreement on its nuclear program. The proposal is deceptive on its face. The most Stalinist regime in the world -- one that has abandoned all existing agreements with the United States, killed half the South Korean government in an assassination plot in Rangoon, abducted more than a score of Japanese for forcible labor in Korea (and many more South Koreans) and blown up a civilian South Korean airliner -- is not likely to be reassured by a nonaggression treaty with an arch-capitalist.

Moreover, such a treaty would represent an admission by the United States that it constitutes a special threat requiring a special arrangement. Pyongyang clearly calculates that, having stigmatized the United States by the fact of the treaty, it can then use it to charge us with violating its provisions. Any American deployment in nearby countries, such as Japan and Korea, any normal troop rotation, or whatever other policies ingenious North Korean diplomacy decides to challenge would become fair game and would trigger another round of nuclear blackmail.

A bilateral U.S.-North Korean negotiation would involve two further traps. Given the growing nationalism in South Korea, any deadlock would be blamed on the United States, further poisoning South Korean-American relationships. Or else Pyongyang could use bilateral negotiations to emerge as the spokesman of Korean nationalism and to marginalize South Korea as a puppet of the United States. Tempting the United States into bilateral negotiations would enhance North Korea's political standing while legitimizing its nuclear status, providing Pyongyang with maximum flexibility with a minimum of obligation. It would create incentives for nuclear proliferation elsewhere; it would bring about a situation in which the enforcement of any agreement would be America's responsibility, with none of the neighboring countries having undertaken any obligation regarding a development that profoundly affects them. And the argument that bilateral negotiations are urgent to prevent North Korean reprocessing would institutionalize nuclear blackmail during negotiations, in the enforcement of any agreement, and for whatever demands Pyongyang may raise afterward.

The fundamental fact is that no compromise is possible between a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and a nonnuclear one. If Pyongyang emerges from this crisis with an unimpaired nuclear and missile capability enhanced by its demonstrated capability of evasion, the door will be open to nearly unrestrained global proliferation and to a major challenge to the balance of power in North Asia. The goal of policy must be a nonnuclear Korea.

A key challenge is to determine North Korea's objectives. Is there some combination of assurance and aid that might induce Pyongyang into a nonnuclear future? Or has North Korea concluded that it must have a nuclear military capability to survive, in which case diplomacy -- whether bilateral or multilateral -- must fail?

Before drawing such conclusions, it is imperative to involve China, Japan and Russia, together with South Korea, in an effort to solve the nuclear problem on the peninsula. A denuclearized Korea can be achieved only by confronting Pyongyang with consequences it is unwilling to face. If the United States undertakes this task alone, the likelihood of a military confrontation is magnified, because Pyongyang may then count on the opposition of South Korea and the standing-aside of China, Japan and Russia to negate our solitary pressures.

China and Japan would be vitally affected by a North Korean nuclear capability and by Pyongyang's acquisition of a capacity for nuclear blackmail. Japan will not stand by when nuclear weapons are being produced and perhaps proliferated by a nearby neighbor. It will either enter the nuclear field or greatly increase its armaments or both. For China, a permanent nuclear crisis at its borders could lead either to another Korean war or to the collapse of its North Korean buffer or both, with streams of refugees crossing the Yalu River. Russia, with unstable regimes along its long borders, should seek to forestall a development giving an impetus to nuclear proliferation.

No country is more directly and perhaps overwhelmingly affected than our ally South Korea. Through every previous crisis, South Korea held fast to the U.S. security alliance and built its own considerable military power in close alliance with ours. But at least since the presidency of Kim Dae Jung starting in 1998, a major change in South Korean priorities has taken place. Seoul went far beyond previous South Korean governments in promoting engagement with the North (the "sunshine policy"). This policy was supported by the Clinton administration. Kim Dae Jung wanted to create a better psychological climate for the security issue by focusing first on so-called soft issues, such as family reunification and economic cooperation.

But Pyongyang never meaningfully implemented the family reunification agreement, nor did it create incentives for investment. The new Bush administration analyzed Pyongyang's strategy correctly, but when it put forward its conclusions bluntly, a rift opened up with the South Korean hopes about the sunshine policy. The recently elected South Korean administration has made this difference explicit and carried it to an extreme. It rejects any hint of military pressure on North Korea by the United States. But in the absence of such pressure, it is difficult to oblige North Korea to act reasonably. Negotiations (bilateral or multilateral) are bound to turn into a catalogue of North Korean demands, which, in its present frame of mind, Seoul is likely to embrace at least in part.

Perhaps a majority of South Koreans give denuclearization of the peninsula a low priority if only because denuclearization of North Korea does not significantly dismiss the threat to Seoul. Leftist groups treat America as the source of tensions; pacifists justify the North Korean program as a response to American threats; nationalists see in the North Korean program an affirmation of Korean dignity. The new South Korean government seems to imagine itself not as an ally but as an intermediary between North Korea and the United States and urges the United States to negotiate a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear program, which, coupled with the renunciation of pressure, means acceding to many of Pyongyang's demands.

But for America and, it is hoped, the other nations of Asia, nonproliferation is a vital issue. If the South Korean and American objectives prove irreconcilable, the American deployment in Korea becomes a hostage to the North Korean nuclear program and South Korean politics -- a state of affairs incompatible with a healthy U.S.-South Korean security relationship and, in the long run, with American deployment on the Korean Peninsula.

Areassessment of the alliance and its strategy is imperative. This requires a more careful analysis of the actual North Korean threat to Seoul. True, Pyongyang has the capacity to do extraordinary damage, but only at the price of its own obliteration. Thus, on the Korean Peninsula there has been re-created the classic standoff of the Cold War. Both sides will shrink from the use of ultimate force. But they will have to find a strategy below this threshold to protect their vital interests. To calculate this threshold correctly becomes one of the tasks of American Korean policy, preferably in alliance with South Korea.

A serious strategy will try to counter North Korea's intransigence and outrageous playing of the nuclear card with a broader multilateral approach addressing the security situation on the Korean Peninsula as a whole. Such a course could strive to address the aims of all parties: the nuclear issue, an attempt to end the isolation of North Korea, and economic cooperation. This can occur only within the context of a nonnuclear Korea.

The role of China will be crucial. Beijing cannot be enlisted in this effort by abstract appeals for assistance in a nonproliferation strategy. For China's interests include the role of North Korea as a buffer on traditional invasion routes and nuclear deployment, not only in Korea but in the rest of Asia. What is needed is an elaboration of the strategic dialogue that the meetings between the Chinese and American presidents have initiated. The stakes are high. For if such an understanding proves unachievable, American strategy will inevitably gravitate either toward removing the reprocessing plant by force or toward a deterrent posture along the periphery of Asia increasingly reliant on nuclear weapons and enhanced missile defense.

One way to achieve these goals is by a conference on the security future of the Korean Peninsula involving China, Russia, Japan, the two Koreas and the United States. Such a conference could place the North Korean nuclear problem in the context of other concerns by the countries involved. Neither China nor Japan has an interest in the collapse of a North Korean political entity -- though the ultimate key to Pyongyang's survival is to build a more humane set of institutions. In such a context, all participants could renounce force in changing North Korea's borders, thereby achieving the nonaggression guarantee Pyongyang professes to seek. It could provide a framework for integrating North Korea into the world economy. It could leave the issue of unification to negotiating between the two Koreas. What it must not do is to ratify nuclear weapons in North Korea.

Time is of the essence. For soon the plutonium production in North Korea will reach a level beyond the capacity of the international system to control.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm.

(c)2003 Tribune Media Services International