North Korea recently threatened to declare itself a nuclear power and explosively test an atomic weapon to prove it. Those threats help the Bush administration’s newly ascendant North Korea hawks’ portrayal of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader, as a belligerent, half-crazed lunatic who—by possessing a large military and conducting a nuclear weapons program—is a threat to the United States and the world. Yes, the despotic North Korean regime is erratic, prone to bluster and somewhat paranoid. Yet, like the threat of the excessively demonized Saddam Hussein, the threat from North Korea is also being hyped by administration hardliners. Past administration exaggerations should cause us to take a deeper look at the North Korean threat.

North Korea is a threat—but mainly to South Korea and possibly Japan. In 1950, North Korea did invade South Korea. But that was then and this is now. Back then, North Korea had better weapons than South Korea and had the help of powerful allies—China and Russia. After more than 50 years of rapid economic growth in South Korea and economic stagnation in North Korea, the South is now in a much better position vis-à-vis the North. China and Russia have improved relations with the southern economic powerhouse and lessened their support for the North—thus isolating the latter. Furthermore, South Korea’s economy is 23 times bigger than that of the North and its defense expenditures are seven times larger.

Hawks claim that North Korea’s million-strong army is a threat to U.S forces in South Korea. After the end of the Cold War, a deeper analysis would ask why 37,000 U.S. forces are still in South Korea to defend a nation that is so much richer than its adversary. Although the North Korean army is large, it is antiquated and short of food and fuel—two critical prerequisites for an invasion of the South. Technology is on the side of the South Koreans. Even if today’s South Korean military alone could not defeat the North (an open question), a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces would give the wealthier South a powerful incentive to rapidly become militarily dominant on the peninsula.

But what about North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs? North Korea probably already has a couple of nuclear weapons and missiles that could theoretically hit the United States. But whether those missiles could carry a heavy nuclear payload to the continental United States is questionable. North Korean nuclear and missile technology is very crude. A successful explosive test, however, could help the North Koreans to shrink the size of a nuclear payload so that it could sit atop an improved long-range missile.

And that worst case eventually may come to pass. Many foreign policy pundits in Washington, engaging in wishful thinking, would like to believe that North Korea is merely threatening a nuclear test to get more goodies in current negotiations. Maybe so, but don’t count on it.

North Korea may be intent on getting a larger nuclear arsenal and concomitant improved long-range missiles to forestall a U.S. attack. North Korea has seen what the United States did to Serbia over Kosovo and to Iraq over virtually nothing. During the Kosovo bombing, the North Koreans expressed fears of meeting the same fate to former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Thus, an aggressive U.S. policy to counter nuclear proliferation is having the opposite effect. Also, the Bush administration complains about North Korean exports of nuclear and missile technology, but then threatens to impose further economic sanctions on the desperate regime’s few legitimate exports.

What if the worst case becomes reality? Instead of doing its own blustering to back a paranoid regime deeper into a corner, the Bush administration should do the opposite and attempt to better relations with North Korea. In the early 1970s, the United States successfully improved relations with an unstable, seemingly bellicose regime that had recently obtained nuclear weapons—Mao’s China. When no longer backed into a corner by a wealthy superpower, the Chinese regime responded positively. Eventually, enhanced trade relations further lessened the Chinese threat.

Kim may be erratic and a frustrating negotiating adversary, but he may also have legitimate security concerns. Instead of believing its own demonization of Kim, the Bush administration should realize that Kim is more pragmatic than he seems; after all, he is still negotiating with the West. The United States should offer a grand bargain—agreeing not to attack North Korea and to a full normalization of relations in exchange for intrusive international inspections to verify the elimination—not just the freezing—of North Korean nuclear and missile programs. At this late hour, Kim has seen the United States attack other sovereign nations without first being attacked and may be too scared to sign any such agreement. But the offer is still worth making.

In any event, if the United States withdrew its forces from South Korea and ceased meddling in Korean affairs, even a North Korea with a few improved nuclear-tipped, long-range missiles would have little inclination or incentive to target them at a dominant superpower possessing thousands of nuclear warheads that is half a world away.