In a report issued Monday, the Council on Foreign Relations warned that the Bush administration needed to take "urgent action" to build a regional coalition and then negotiate a peaceful resolution to the situation that could otherwise end with Pyongyang exporting nuclear weapons to other unfriendly nations.
"The United States cannot establish a coalition without a serious negotiating package, and it cannot make a serious negotiating effort without a coalition," the council said in the report issued by a task force of former diplomats and other experts in international relations. "Neither U.S. allies nor China will support tougher action against North Korea unless the United States makes a real effort to negotiate a peaceful end to the nuclear issue."
Washington, the report concluded, must first appoint a high-level policy coordinator to beef up relationships with South Korea, which has urged a policy of engagement rather than isolation, and with China, which is North Korea's largest benefactor and presumably would have a fair amount of clout with Pyongyang.
"The administration has been correct to emphasize China in its North Korea diplomacy and should intensify its efforts to gain Beijing's full cooperation in pressuring the North," the report said. "Any negotiations with North Korea must have China's support and implementation of any agreement must have China's full participation."
A united front will be needed, the report pointed out, particularly if U.S-North Korean talks fail to cool the situation off and the United States is forced to take stronger measures, ranging from trade sanctions to an outright blockade to prevent the export of weapons and other contraband from North Korea.
"Pyongyang has to know there will be serious consequences if it fails to accept a reasonable interim agreement," said the report.
The long-term icy relations between the United States and North Korea took an ominous turn late last year when North Korea confirmed it had launched a program to produce highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. Pyongyang later withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and declared that it already possessed nuclear bombs.
Although the United States has been largely pre-occupied with the military campaign in Iraq, the council cautioned that the North Korean crisis continued to simmer, leaving Washington without much time to organize a coalition of backers and then execute a diplomatic solution.
"The situation has drifted toward one in which the United States may have little choice but to live with a North Korea with more nuclear weapons and to find ways to prevent it from exporting its fissile (nuclear) material," the report said. "The task force believes the United States should strenuously try to prevent that outcome. The best means to achieve this goal is to try to unite U.S. allies around a common policy."
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)