The best that can be hoped for is that this new round of diplomacy will go the way of the last one - with Pyongyang's delegation behaving badly and refusing to disarm. That will, of course, do nothing to prevent the North's nuclear ambitions. But neither will the other possible outcome: a new deal with Pyongyang pursuant to which the latter will falsely promise to curb that threat.
This was the lesson of Bill Clinton's 1994 "Agreed Framework" with North Korea. Many - including some in high office, who certainly should have known better - were induced to believe that, thanks to that accord's swap of Western funds, fuel, technology and food for North Korea's disarmament pledges, a grievous security threat had been eliminated.
We now know that, shortly after (if not actually before) the Framework was signed, North Korea made an utter mockery of that accord by covertly launching a new, uranium enrichment-based effort to continue its nuclear arms program. Evidently benefitting from the same "Nukes 'r Us" pipeline that supplied Chinese weapons designs and Pakistani centrifuges to countries like Iran and Libya, Pyongyang used the last decade to dangerous effect: The North can now threaten neighboring nations and the United States with its own, small nuclear arsenal - and with the possibility that it would make such weapons available to other rogue states, or perhaps to terrorists, with the requisite cash.
The talks now in the offing risk having the Bush Administration compounding one other mistake made by its predecessor. By doing yet another deal with North Korea's dictator, the United States cannot help but confer legitimacy on what is, arguably, the world's most odious regime.
A recently aired BBC documentary validated this dubious distinction. It featured eye-witness accounts of the use of poison gas to liquidate political prisoners and their families in the North's vast gulag - a reminder of a Nazi-inflicted low-point in human history that the civilized world has promised would never be allowed to reoccur.
Unfortunately, those North Koreans not yet incarcerated in or exterminated by their country's monstrous penal system fare scarcely better. By some credible estimates, two million of them have been allowed to starve to death. This has occurred even though large quantities of emergency food assistance have been provided by the United States taxpayer and others - only to be ripped off for the benefit of the Communist Party elite and the North's military. It is a dangerous delusion to believe that any government that treats its own people in such a systematically barbaric way can be relied upon to treat those of other nations any better.
Fortunately, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated two decades ago, there is an alternative to appeasement or open warfare with such a monstrous regime. Shortly after he came to office, President Reagan mapped out and ordered the implementation of a comprehensive strategy for destroying what was at the time the planet's most brutally repressive and threatening dictatorship, that of the Soviet Union.
This strategy involved the coordinated application of military strength, economic and financial coercion, export controls and various forms of strategic pressure (notably, via information operations such as freedom radios beaming into Soviet territory and that of its client states). At its core was an essential ingredient: the truth.
In particular, President Reagan made a personal point of describing the USSR as what it was: "the Evil Empire." He challenged Soviet leaders to end their repressive behavior, notably by tearing down the Berlin Wall and allowing free emigration.
Of special relevance to the present moment, Mr. Reagan refused to accept a deal offered him by Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavic, Iceland in 1986. Gorbachev's proposal - like that on offer from North Korea at the moment - would have given the appearance of a lessening of the threat to U.S. interests and security, but at an unacceptable cost. Even though international and media elites, domestic critics and State Department bureaucrats were horrified, Mr. Reagan refused to legitimate the Soviet regime by acceding to its demand that the United States forever foreswear missile defenses.
President Bush seems to be under no illusion about the nature of Kim Jong-il and his regime. In fact, he has been quoted as saying he "loathes" Kim and his ilk. Yet, he is being set up for another seductive Reykjavic-like deal, trading tangible Western aid and non-aggression pacts for more, phony North Korean non-proliferation commitments.
State Department Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage has been running a diplomatic "backchannel" to the North Korean regime, evidently through its mission to the United Nations. So secretive have these contacts been that even President Bush has reportedly been kept largely in the dark about them. The object seems to be to arrange for Mr. Bush to be made an offer in Beijing that he can't - or at least won't - refuse.
Like President Reagan a generation ago, President Bush must reject new deals with the today's most evil regime. The strategy should once again be one of roll-back, aimed at containing and ending this blight, not signing agreements that will permit it to persist and become still more dangerous in the future.