ONCE again the United States finds itself crosswise with the North Koreans, caught between a requirement to talk business with them and a seemingly irresistible urge to call them names. In her confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice labeled North Korea "an outpost of tyranny."
The name-calling came as the series of six-party talks, including the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia on the subject of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, was about to resume.
North Korea responded by saying officially and for the first time that it possesses nuclear weapons. It has always danced around the subject in the past. Then it said that there would be no further talks for an indefinite period.
It is always hard to figure out why North Korea does things. Its leader, Kim Jong Il is sometimes even invisible for periods of time. This time it chose to take great public offense at Ms. Rice's characterization of it, taking advantage of what it sees as a position of relative strength to seek to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in the talks.
China would be in the best position to crack the whip on the North Koreans to bring them back to the negotiating table; Pyongyang depends on it for oil and rice.
But China has no particular reason to pull strings to please the United States, given its advantage with respect to America based on huge U.S. trade and budget deficits and the related dependence of America on Chinese and Japanese purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds to stay afloat.
Neither Japan, South Korea, nor Russia has any reason to really put the heat on Pyongyang at this point. Another reason for their relatively calm response to North Korea's latest blast might be that they don't believe that North Korea really has nuclear weapons.
Or they believed already that they had them and that the new announcement was simply another move in the war of rhetoric between Pyongyang and the Bush Administration.
It may also be that the other four parties believe that North Korea will eventually have to come back to the table, given its dire economic straits. Their approach at this point would then be to wait for North Korea and the Bush Administration to calm themselves, and then seek quietly to revive the six-party talks.
What possesses senior administration officials to call North Korea names, particularly in light of the degree to which America is fully engaged militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, can probably be determined only by looking deeply into the souls of administration neo-conservatives.
It is difficult to imagine that they are seeking to lay the basis for an attack on North Korea - or Iran and Syria - at this time. The best long-term approach to North Korea is to talk with them, flanked by allies, and seek to achieve effective inspection of whatever nuclear programs Pyongyang might be working on.
The eventual solution to dealing with North Korea lies in drawing it by economic means into the international community, where it will gradually become subject to international norms of behavior.
Name-calling by the U.S. secretary of state adds nothing whatsoever to achieving that objective.