The North Koreans have been playing a very dangerous game ever since June 1950, when Kim Il Sung, aided by the Soviet Union and with the approval of China, sent his forces across the 38th parallel.
On that occasion, only massive intervention by Chinese troops saved the North Korean army from annihilation by U.N. forces under the command of Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur.
Before the Korean war ended, more than 3,000,000 Koreans, 1,000,000 Chinese and 50,000 Americans were killed.
Since the end of the war, North Korea has been responsible for extraordinary acts of state terrorism, including the assassination South Korean Cabinet ministers and the blowing up of a Korean Air Lines passenger plane.
Although its international role has been relatively moderate since the late 1980s, for the past year or two it has been flirting with disaster again.
It has attempted to produce nuclear weapons in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory, and it is playing cat-and-mouse with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
A number of prominent Americans including Brent Scowcroft, George Bush's national security adviser, have called for military sanctions if the North Koreans do not come to heel in the next few weeks.
An attack on North Korea's nuclear reactor, successful or not, will almost certainly lead to war on the Korean Peninsula. It is a war no one wants and which the United States must not provoke.
At the moment there is more doubt as to whether North Korea has any nuclear devices.
Some members of the U.S. intelligence community believe it has produced several. Russian and Chinese sources are skeptical. No one contends that North Korea poses a threat to the security of the United States.
Its neighbors -- China, Japan, and South Korea -- are indeed uneasy about North Korea's nuclear program, but even more fearful of U.S. military sanctions' beginning a war.
The principal U.S. nightmare is that a desperately poor North Korea will not only produce nuclear bombs but also sell them to "rogue" states such as Libya and Iran. The spread of nuclear weapons increases the possibility that they will be used. Unquestionably, this U.S. interest in preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear bazaar is legitimate, but the danger is not imminent.
We probably have months, rather than weeks, before the North Koreans would be able to market their creations. We have time to allow the succession to Kim Il Sung to stabilize, time to talk, time to deal, time to work for the peaceful and gradual reunification of Korea. It is a season for diplomats, not warriors.
North Korea is a powder keg. The United States must not provide the match. The nonproliferation cause, like that of human rights, is important and must be pursued relentlessly. But we have other interests in East Asia and there are times when other interests must take precedence.
During the Cold War, the United States tolerated human rights abuses by its allies on grounds of national security. For the same reasons, it accepted India's decision to become a nuclear power. For domestic political reasons, it has acquiesced in Israel's "secret" nuclear weapons program. North Korea's nuclear transgressions are obviously more worrisome, but the United States can still justify patience. A second Korean War in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, would die is too high a price to pay for an objective that might well be achieved through diplomacy.
The current situation in North Korea is an enigma to the rest of the world. No one is sure whether Kim Jong Il will be able to consolidate his power after the death of his father. No one is sure what his policies or those of his potential rivals might be. But one does not have to be an expert in politics or psychology to know this is not the time to increase pressure on the regime.
We look forward to the eventual reunification of the two Koreas in this post-Cold War era. It is in our interest and in the interest of all of our friends in East Asia, especially the South Koreans, for that end to be reached peacefully and gradually. The sudden collapse or destruction of the Communist regime would put an unbearable economic burden on the people of South Korea, far worse than West Germany faced with the collapse of East Germany. The flow of refugees to the South or to China would have a destabilizing effect on the region.
The United States can serve its national interest by expanding its dialogue with the North Koreans, by negotiating all of the issues between the two nations. This would include the prospect of normalizing relations and of some modest assistance aimed at preparing the North for a market economy. It might also encompass the possibility of helping the North Koreans develop nuclear power facilities that could not be converted to weapons production.
This is not a situation in which nonproliferation can be pursued in a vacuum, without regard to the consequences for the region. The outcome of the negotiations led by Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci, a highly regarded nonproliferation expert, will have important ramifications for China, Japan and Russia, as well as South Korea. Mr. Gallucci should be armed with the kind of knowledge and experience that only East Asian specialists can provide.
Resolving U.S.-North Korean tensions in a timely and peaceful manner may seem like a job for Superman, but in his absence the task certainly requires the active participation of Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, and his team. We must give diplomacy a chance -- and hand the assignment to our best diplomats.
Warren Cohen, professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the author of several books on diplomatic history, including "America's Response to China."