"That horse is out of the barn," said actor and former Republican senator Fred Thompson when asked about North Korea's nuclear program. Thompson spoke at the premiere of "Last Best Chance," a chillingly realistic film sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. In it, he plays a president who fails to prevent al Qaeda from smuggling stolen nukes into the United States, dramatizing the imperative to halt proliferation at its source.
President Bush agrees that the greatest threat we face is nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. If, indeed, the North Korean horse "is out of the barn," we face a grave risk. To date, President Bush has failed to prevent North Korea from producing enough fissile material to build an estimated six to eight nuclear weapons, up from one to two in 2003.
Though administration officials have played down the significance of North Korea's growing arsenal, the threat to the United States has greatly increased. Impoverished North Korea now probably has enough nuclear material to sell its surplus to the highest bidder and still retain its own stockpile. Al Qaeda, which aims to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States, could be that bidder.
We face an urgent crisis. In recent weeks North Korea has declared that it has nuclear weapons, has prepared to harvest plutonium sufficient for two more bombs and has hinted that it might conduct a nuclear test. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, there is little hope of reversing its nuclear program or of averting a regional arms race.
At this late stage, the United States has three options.
First, we could strike North Korea's suspected nuclear facilities or use force to change the regime. Military options must remain on the table, but all of them are problematic. U.S. intelligence on North Korea is poor. Overstretched in Iraq, the United States does not have ground forces for an invasion. South Korea and China vehemently oppose military action. Worse still, North Korea could retaliate with a nuclear or conventional strike on nearby Seoul, on our more than 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, on Japan or even on the United States.
Second, we could accept a nuclear North Korea. But its erratic leader, Kim Jong Il, could still try to sell excess fissile material. He may also have the ability to attach a nuclear warhead to a long-range missile and hit the continental United States. Unfortunately, containment depends on two unreliable tools: national missile defense, which tests have proved is still hit-or-miss, and the proliferation security initiative -- a seaborne, needle-in-the-haystack search complicated further by the refusal of China and South Korea to participate.
Third, the United States could pursue intensive bilateral negotiations within the framework of the Chinese-led six-party talks. Having dubbed North Korea and Iran charter members of the "axis of evil," the administration trades insults with those regimes while rejecting direct negotiations with "tyrants" and cheaters as repugnant. They are indeed, but not nearly as repugnant as a nuclear attack by terrorists on an American city.
The president should recognize that rolling back North Korea's nuclear program is more important to U.S. national security than any principled objection to direct negotiations or tacit ambitions to change that odious regime. He should immediately propose high-level, bilateral talks and personally confirm that the United States has "no hostile intent" toward North Korea. In exchange for the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programs, the United States should offer security guarantees, economic ties, fuel supplies and diplomatic relations.
At this eleventh hour, North Korea might refuse the bilateral talks it has long sought, or such negotiations could well fail. Yet a serious effort to negotiate is critical to any hope of gaining eventual South Korean or Chinese assent to punitive action. If direct negotiations fail, President Bush will merely face the same choice he does today: launch a potentially catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula or allow North Korea to expand its nuclear arsenal, hoping we can catch any bombs it might sell before they cross our borders.
There is speculation that the administration may decide to seek U.N. sanctions against North Korea and, if China vetoes them or refuses to exert major pressure, blame China for this crisis. Primary responsibility rests with North Korea, but for too long the administration has relegated the problem to the sidelines and subcontracted U.S. policy to China, whose interests differ substantially from ours. To now blame China or seek unattainable sanctions would be posturing, not responsible policy.
Time is not on our side. The president needs to act swiftly to eliminate North Korea's nuclear program -- through intense bilateral diplomacy. A continued refusal to try would squander our "last best chance" to salvage a nightmarish policy failure.
The writer, assistant secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.