NORTH KOREA'S PURSUIT of a nuclear arsenal directly threatens the security of the American people, as well as our ability to shape the international order so as to strengthen the stability of Asia, defeat the global threat of terrorism, and enhance the security of the United States and our allies. Those who counsel a return to the status quo fail to grasp the danger of rewarding threats with retreat and concession. America's challenge in Asia is to compel North Korea's nuclear disarmament, protect ourselves and our allies from the insecurity caused by the nuclear ambitions and nature of North Korea's regime, and demonstrate to other rogue leaders that America will not be blackmailed into violating first principles of sound statecraft.

In 1994, faced with a similar challenge, the United States agreed to provide North Korea half a million tons of fuel oil annually and construct two civilian nuclear reactors in return for a freeze on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs. Many of us questioned how this could possibly serve our security interests. The agreement was frontloaded with benefits for North Korea, even allowing it to retain material to develop more nuclear weapons and advanced missiles that will soon be capable of striking the continental United States. In exchange, North Korea--a regime infamous for its deceit, hostility to the United States and its allies, and the megalomania of its ruler--provided a mere promise of future good faith.

Regrettably, the Clinton administration pursued a policy that was all carrot and no stick. It thus mistook for resolving the North Korean crisis what merely postponed its apogee. By granting North Korea the time and the means to improve its nuclear and missile capability, the agreement made America and our allies less, not more, secure. North Korea began a secret uranium enrichment program after 1995. Pyongyang now flaunts the failure of U.S. policy by trumpeting its nuclear progress and seeking to extort even more concessions.

We clearly enjoyed a false peace from 1994 to 2002. There can be no going back. In the face of North Korea's nuclear provocation, a return to the failed policies of the past is unacceptable. North Korea itself has declared the Agreed Framework dead and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

North Korea's actions are driven by its expectation, which we have nurtured, that a policy of extortion through threat of attack will once again compel us to appease the regime of Kim Jong Il. But this would only instruct other rogue states in the benefits of threatening America. Proliferation would flourish. Those nations with the greatest interest in North Korea's denuclearization do not seem to have grasped the threat a nuclear North Korea poses to their interests.

Beijing should see that a nuclear standoff in Asia threatens the stability on which China's economic growth depends. Japan, understandably, will be under enormous pressure to deploy nuclear weapons absent North Korean disarmament, setting off a proliferation race in Asia with serious consequences for China's ambitions. And the Chinese would surely want to avoid an American military occupation of North Korea in the event of war with Pyongyang, or the possibility that Taiwan might seek nuclear weapons in response to regional proliferation.

The views of our South Korean ally are important. But South Korean policy today seems motivated more by fear than by logic. Policies that sustain Kim Jong Il's regime do not serve the long-term interests of the Korean people. Instead, they immorally prolong the suffering of North Koreans. The dream of reunification held by most Koreans, and the desire of many for a reduction in the U.S. military presence, are not served by policies that extend the reign of the North Korean dictatorship.

North Korea is the world's greatest rogue arms merchant. Failure to disarm Pyongyang will encourage grave challenges to our security elsewhere, as the North peddles its wares to other rogue states and terrorists. We cannot countenance a global order in which nuclear technology available to the highest bidder reorders world affairs in favor of our enemies.

Regrettably, the debate over the Korean crisis has been limited to arguments over whether the Bush administration's rhetoric and initial skepticism about North Korea's good faith provoked it, when it is plain that the flaws in the 1994 agreement, and the Clinton administration's ensuing diplomacy, as well as the nature of the North Korean regime, led inevitably to the current dangerous state of affairs. Yet, the Bush administration must accept part of the blame. By indulging in the same wishful thinking and finger-crossing as its predecessor, it has allowed this false debate to supplant a more honest and corrective appraisal.

After first responding appropriately to North Korean violations of the agreement and refusing even to discuss with North Korea its extortion demands, the administration now appears to have embraced, and in some respects exceeded, the style and substance of Clinton's diplomacy. Both the president and secretary of state publicly ruled out the use of force, although force could eventually prove to be the only means to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear arsenal--a dangerously shortsighted precedent that even the Clinton administration did not publicly suggest. The administration's public rejection of North Korean demands for new negotiations gave way to public offers of direct talks, then one day later to a public offer to discuss formally assuring North Korea that the United States would never be the first to use force on the peninsula. This rapid deterioration of our resolve is as reckless as it is disingenuous.

North Korea and Iraq present different faces of the same danger. Today, North Korea poses a greater danger than Iraq, and confronting it presents a more difficult challenge. That is all the more reason to take whatever action necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from becoming a threat of equal magnitude and just as difficult to confront.

But the greater difficulty of resolving the Korean crisis is not the central concern. The greater danger it poses is. This doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to meet and overcome the threat any more than it replaces the necessity of overcoming the threat from Iraq. Nine years ago we faced a difficult set of options. We chose to avoid them, and our irresolution has placed us in even greater danger.

To overcome it we should lead our allies in the aggressive, multilateral isolation of North Korea. We should immediately pursue the imposition of multilateral sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, accompanied by interdiction of critical shipments into and out of North Korea. We should encourage international efforts to freeze the $4 billion in personal wealth Kim Jong Il has salted away in offshore accounts. The United States should reimpose the sanctions on Pyongyang it lifted in 1999. We should encourage China to open its border to North Korean refugees. Most important, we should make clear to China and others the consequences of acquiescing to North Korea's nuclear ambitions, including Japan's emergence as a nuclear power.

We should negotiate nothing with the North Korean regime so long as it maintains its right to develop nuclear weapons. We should move aggressively to help our allies deploy missile defenses to protect them from the North Korean threat.

Our security depends on preventing North Korea from possessing a nuclear arsenal. That must be the primary object of our diplomacy. Freezing Pyongyang's nuclear program in place while we and our allies prolong the reign of the world's last Stalinist regime does not accomplish that objective, but merely encourages future attempts at nuclear blackmail. Only if North Korea is prepared to surrender the enriched uranium it secretly attained, the spent fuel rods that would yield enough plutonium for three to five nuclear weapons, as well as dismantle the reactor it now threatens to restart, should we or any other country consider any assistance that might help North Korea escape the certain destiny of a failed state.

The use of military force to defend vital American security interests must always be a last resort, as it is in this crisis. But if we fail to achieve the international cooperation necessary to end this threat, then the countries in the region should know with certainty that while they may risk their own populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people. And spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism. We would prefer the company of North Korea's neighbors, but we will make do without it if we must.

John McCain is the senior senator from Arizona.

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