The situation with North Korea’s nuclear weapons is serious. For the first time, China is afraid. Instead of typically vague Chinese calls to all parties to calm down, China issued a euphemistic warning to North Korea to desist from the nuclear tests.

Given such attention, North Korea will surely proceed with nuclear test. Communist Korea has no oil, no blacks to discriminate against, no land conflicts to solve. Its leaders are bored with oppressing the locals. Like everyone, they want attention. Neither money nor aid—compared to the people, they live in paradise—but attention. The Soviet rulers behaved similarly during the empire’s death agony: they could no longer get attention by threats and offered to sell communism.

Diplomacy is the art of flexibility. With some nations, a no-compromise posture works great. With others, it doesn’t. North Korea is that rare country which cannot be contained; it has already closed itself off. Iran’s nuclear threat should be contained; Iran depends on oil exports. The North Korean nuclear should be showered with attention to open the place up. Freezing Iranian assets was useless but otherwise correct. Freezing North Korean assets was wrong. China and South Korea, two countries very afraid of the North, have not stopped talking to it.

US threats against North Korea are empty. The only hard option is to bomb the North Korean reactor, labs, and numerous possible test facilities. That would still leave North Korea with plutonium to sell. And sell it would. The Iranian mullahs are crackpots, but at least predictable crackpots. They will use a nuclear bomb to blackmail the US, then to gain leadership in the Islamic world, and only then bomb the US and Israel. North Korea’s rulers are problematic because they entirely lack principles; they would sell the bomb or plutonium to any cash bidder. Frankly, we expect Hezbollah or Hamas to seek the protection of a nuclear state; the USSR protected Egypt against the worst-case Israeli strike in 1973. The world is totally unprepared for a criminal syndicate with a nuclear bomb. Plenty of criminal and radical organizations could arrange a billion dollars or so to buy North Korean plutonium. Bush’s cowboy tactics couldn’t stop them.

The proper approach is two-fold. First and foremost, establish a safety net. Offer to buy North Korea’s plutonium for a billion dollars a pound. The offer must be issued officially from the US and the UN, and similar cash offers relayed through black market operators.

Having established itself as the best buyer, the US should start talking to North Korea. Talk nice and sweet. Try to open the country. A breath of air from the free world would break the communist regime; Coke, jeans, and jazz broke the USSR, not the arms race. That, however, takes subtle diplomacy.