North Korea? Say what?

It’s somewhat surprising that President Bush and Senator Kerry spent a full 10 minutes of their 90-minute debate last week talking about North Korea, but it was a good thing. After all, while we invaded Iraq because of nuclear weapons it turned out not to have, North Korea really has them.

Viewers should forgive themselves, however, if they didn’t quite grasp the men’s policy disagreement—which is better, bilateralism or multilateralism?—since discussion of the threat posed by North Korea has been lost in the shadow of the war in Iraq.

It goes back to 1994, when the Clinton administration negotiated a bilateral agreement with North Korea that froze its plutonium-producing facilities in return for American help in building two light-water nuclear reactors.

In 2002, however, North Korea announced it had violated the agreement and was still developing nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, eager to show up the Clintonites as appeasers, determined to have nothing to do with the North Koreans. Of course, that didn’t solve the problem, and meetings eventually became necessary. The United States still refused to talk directly with North Korea, instead organizing multilateral talks involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia in addition to the U.S.

That was 18 months ago, and things have gone from bad to worse. In addition to its enriched-uranium program, North Korea now has processed the plutonium rods frozen by the Clinton agreement, giving it enough plutonium for half a dozen bombs. Worse, we don’t know where it is, and North Korea has a history of selling nuclear technology to dangerous people.

In such a situation, direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea while continuing multilateral negotiations, as Senator Kerry recommends, are the quickest and best way to defuse a truly threatening situation. This is one instance in which the U.S. would be right to act independently, not only because the North Koreans are willing to talk with us, but also because too much is at stake otherwise. Such talks would not be appeasement—just common sense.