Now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has been overthrown, the Bush Administration, like a submarine that, having successfully sunk one ship, resurfaces its periscope to find others, is looking about the world to see what countries it may decide to attack. Since these prospective wars, like the one against Iraq, would be “wars of choice,” it’s hard for dizzied citizens to guess which nations, if any, are next. Syria? The Administration leveled charges like those it made against Iraq: possession of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism. Of such stuff is “regime change” made. “There’s gotta be change in Syria as well,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Meet the Press. But then the President said he had no plans to attack Syria just at this minute. He stated, “I have no specific operation in mind at this point in time. I can’t think of a specific moment or incident that would require military action as we speak.” It was a reprieve–for the time being. Perhaps Iran? An Administration spokesman lamented Iran’s “intervention” in Iraq’s domestic affairs. (This from a country that has just overthrown the government of Iraq and now occupies the country.) But the nation most often mentioned is North Korea, which has announced that it actually possesses nuclear weapons–the sort of weaponry of mass destruction that the toppled Saddam regime was accused of building but which so far has turned out not to have had after all. At the antiwar demonstrations this past winter, participants sometimes chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” The military occupation of Iraq and all the talk about who might be next is what empire looks like.

The dilemma posed by the North Korea crisis is distressingly clear-cut. On the one hand, North Korea has announced that it has nuclear weapons and intends to keep them and make more unless the United States forswears any attack upon it and makes other concessions. (The United States has independently confirmed that North Korea does indeed have one or two nuclear weapons. Curiously, however, the facts remain in doubt. Both governments have a reason to practice deception on this point: the North Koreans in order to increase deterrence, the Bush Administration in order to push the failure to stop proliferation back into the Clinton years.) On the other hand, George W. Bush has declared that “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons”–and then named North Korea (along with Iraq and Iran) as one of the countries in question. If both regimes remain on their present course, there must be a collision. And if there is a collision, one of two things must happen: Either North Korea must throw up its hands and disarm or the United States, in a second application of its preventive policy, must wage another war. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has already circulated a memo calling for “regime change” in North Korea. But war against North Korea will be a different matter from war against Iraq. North Korea possesses 700 fighter jets, 3,700 tanks, about 700 missiles capable of hitting South Korea and Japan and 11,000 artillery pieces within range of South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul. Even if nuclear weapons are not used, there may, military analysts have stated, be as many as 1 million casualties on the first day of the war. The war will of course go on for more than one day. And if nuclear weapons are used–by North Korea, the United States or both–this figure must be multiplied many times over. In sum, hard as it is to concentrate on a new war in Asia, we must start waking up to the fact that the crisis over North Korea is incomparably more dangerous than anything that has happened or is likely to happen in Iraq.

There is, however, a perfectly obvious solution to the crisis. It would be a deal in which each side accepts the main demand of the other: North Korea would give up its nuclear program and the United States would give the requested security guarantee and economic help. The United States fears harm from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but North Korea builds those weapons because it fears attack by the United States. The two countries have no quarrel but the quarrel itself. No other tangible bone of contention–no territorial dispute, for example–divides them. The solution is to declare the quarrel over, and act accordingly. Indeed, on October 12, 2000, in the last days of the Clinton Administration, the United States and North Korea did exactly that. They declared, “Neither government would have hostile intent toward the other.” Or, as North Korea expert Leon Sigal has characterized this statement, “In plain English, we are not enemies.”

Certainly, no one can say that the choice between war and acceptance of a nuclearized North Korea will have been forced upon the United States until such a settlement has at least been proposed. What is far from obvious, unfortunately, is that either government is ready to accept a deal fashioned along these lines. Until very recently, the position of the United States was that it would not even enter into talks with North Korea until North Korea first agreed to roll back its nuclear program. Now talks have begun, but the United States has not yet indicated a readiness to give the requested guarantees. The President has called the North Korean position “blackmail.” North Korea, for its part, may or may not be willing to give up its nuclear weapons program even in the event that it receives the guarantees it demands. It may be using the current talks with the United States as a ploy to buy time while it produces nuclear weapons. Then, with a larger nuclear arsenal in hand, it would bargain from a position of strength. Such a position is one the United States would be in an excellent position to understand. The US government has always believed that negotiations must be conducted from a position of strength. Unfortunately, history offers no example of a country that itself built and then surrendered its nuclear arsenal in the face of external threats.

As in the Cuban missile crisis forty-one years ago, diplomacy is given the task of escaping traps created by rigid, belligerent, unwise military threats and commitments. The arts we need now are the ones not of winning but of backing up.