IT'S A NIGHTMARE of a regime, led by a brutal dictator who can't be trusted. It's heavily armed -- if not already with nuclear weapons, then all too soon. It threatens its neighboring states and, less directly, the United States. The long-term U.S. goal has to be regime change.
We're talking Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il, not Baghdad and Saddam Hussein. There are lots of critical differences between these two crises, but there's much in common -- starting with the vexing problem of how to topple an antagonist.
Disturbingly, there's been more talk of late of resolving the North Korean version of this problem with force. It goes: America has prepared for 50 years to attack the North; it will be messy, but it can be done.
Let's hope the hawk chatter is mere posturing in the run-up to this week's talks in Beijing among the United States, the North, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. Given Mr. Kim's nuclear threats, American military preparedness is wise. But an attack on the North is an appallingly frightful notion that must be rejected.
The evolving morass in Iraq reminds us that, despite the U.S. military's impressive powers, prevailing on the battlefield isn't the whole story.
In the case of the Korean Peninsula, amplify that postwar axiom with a catastrophe in which millions on both sides might perish, nuclear weapons might light up, and nearby powers with their own agendas inevitably would be involved.
Don't count on it, but there's still some hope this week's multilateral meeting -- in itself a notable concession by the North -- might somehow lead to the long-proffered "Grand Bargain," in which Mr. Kim would trade away his sole lever, his nuclear threat, for economic aid and U.S. security guarantees. Of course, that positive breakthrough would stabilize his dictatorship, still leaving the long-term problem of regime change.
Either way, the sword is not a viable option. The answer must be an inexorable tightening of the noose around the North -- something that can be accomplished only in increasing concert with the rest of the world, most particularly the North's longtime patron, China, and the rest of northeast Asia.
Encouragingly, the North's neighbors and other nations now are helping more to construct that deadly ring, highlighted by recent U.S.-led exercises to step up interdiction of sea shipments of illegal weapons and drugs that provide a critical lifeline of $1 billion to $2 billion a year to sustain Mr. Kim and his cohorts. Unlike Iraq, this is a nation with few resources, an economy not even worth mentioning, and a starving population: Cutting off its cash flow may topple Mr. Kim just as surely as military attack.
Of course, this regime and the long-brutalized North Korean people are not one and the same, and that raises humanitarian issues with which the United States and particularly China and South Korea must just as aggressively prepare to cope. Opening neighboring diplomatic doors more formally and more widely for thousands and thousands of North Korean refugees would hasten the North's collapse -- and in any case serve as essential preparation for virtually any regime-change scenario.