MORE THAN half a century after the Korean War armistice, the United States and North Korea have yet to turn that shaky cease-fire into real peace. It is time for President Bush to negotiate an end to enmity with North Korea and with its "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il.
Consider: Osama bin Laden is on record as hoping to acquire a nuclear weapon. Where would he buy one? The New York Times recently reported that North Korea was suspected of having sold processed uranium to Libya. As long as Pyongyang proceeds with its nuclear program, as it publicly acknowledged last week, no one can rule out the possibility it might sell complete weapons to its enemies' enemies.
Washington has few promising policies from which to choose.
In particular, war seems an unlikely option. U.S. forces are stretched thin in Iraq. Because of North Korea's porcupine strategy of maintaining enormous and deeply dug-in armed might, invaders even at full strength would have hell to pay.
Threats and economic sanctions, rather than promoting denuclearization and liberty in North Korea, mainly serve to intensify xenophobia. Many of Mr. Kim's subjects did notice that the country's steep economic decline dated almost precisely from the time he began assuming power from his father, the late Kim Il Sung. But North Koreans are trained to blame their hardships on outside enemies who threaten and isolate their country, forcing the regime to devote inordinate resources to the military.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, reportedly hoped Beijing would incite North Korean soldiers to stage a coup against Mr. Kim. They should be careful what they wish for. Although it's fair to characterize Mr. Kim as a nasty piece of work, some of his military men are nastier still.
Mr. Kim has signaled that one of his sons will succeed him. But the precedent of his own long apprenticeship suggests he may not remove himself from the picture imminently. In any event, his offspring are the devils we don't know.
Before and after the 1994 death of his father, Kim Jong Il proved himself a wily dictator, mobilizing massive internal security forces to root out any overt opposition. Some Pyongyang watchers now argue that his iron grip on the country has loosened. But so far, there's insufficient evidence to conclude he no longer calls the shots. For the time being, anyone seeking a workable deal needs to go directly to Mr. Kim.
Washington hard-liners minimize the prospects for successful negotiation - whether in the six-party talks that Pyongyang announced last week it would boycott or in the one-on-one talks with the United States that it demands. Whatever he might promise, they argue, Mr. Kim will not give up his weapons of mass destruction. Especially regarding his arsenal of existing weapons (as opposed to the more negotiable program for developing new ones), that's probably true - unless Mr. Kim can be convinced that the United States has truly transformed itself from enemy to friend.
But why should Washington become Pyongyang's friend? After all, the regime's human rights record is abominable. In fact, though, Mr. Kim has moderated the abuses somewhat in response to foreign disapproval. A despot with a brutal side to his character, he is not a full-blown genocidal maniac in the Hitler mold. Persuasion from new friends in Washington could prod him to ease his people's sufferings further.
South Korea has grown strong enough not to worry a great deal about an invasion from the North, and the Cold War is no longer a global conflict. Mr. Kim doesn't champion an expansionist ideology that threatens to overturn Western values in one "domino" country after another.
Indeed, belatedly acknowledging the failure of the Marxist component of the country's ideology, he has begun to encourage market forces. Who knows where that might lead if he could stop worrying about external enemies? The fundamental geopolitical and economic interests of North Korea are reconcilable now with those of the United States, and it is time to reconcile them. The precedent of Richard Nixon in China suggests that Mr. Bush is the right man for the job.
Like Mr. Nixon a hard-line Republican noted for a history of bashing the antagonist, Mr. Bush has gone so far as to describe Mr. Kim as a loathsome pygmy. If he now patches things up with the North Korean leader, the president is uniquely in position to make their handshake acceptable to the right wing at home - and thereby, in historic fashion, clear the decks for dealing with more implacable foes.
Bradley K. Martin, a former Asia correspondent for The Sun, teaches journalism at Louisiana State University and is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.