President Bush’s inflammatory rhetoric against North Korea is counterproductive, and will not help to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula anytime soon. Labeling the country as part of an “axis of evil” — as Bush did in his State of the Union address — is unfair and inaccurate.

North Korea is not a terrorist state. Rather, it is an isolationist state, a totalitarian regime concerned with the perpetuation of its own power in a world that has turned against it. Unlike certain Middle Eastern nations implicated by Bush, North Korea has no obvious agenda in world politics. It has no reason to encourage terrorist acts in other parts of the world.

Instead, its drive to develop threatening weapons stems from its legitimate concerns for self-preservation, and from the simple fact that it has always been able to get more from its enemies through brinkmanship than through diplomatic overtures.

Why, then, has North Korea suffered these accusations? The fact is, North Korea does participate in a worldwide underground economy of arms. But this is not because of a vested interest in putting missiles into the hands of religious extremists. It is because this is the most effective way for a cash-starved dictatorship to conduct profitable foreign trade in the face of near total economic isolation.

Let us not forget that North Korea was not always a famine-stricken desperation case on the verge of collapse. Indeed, it was in the past a tiny industrial juggernaut whose economic output and standard of living outstripped those of its rival South Korea up until the 1970s. This progress was made in the context of a thriving network of trade among communist countries — the oft-forgotten “second world.” The fall of communist regimes around the world has left North Korea nearly friendless and partnerless.

In such a situation, this country has little choice but to conduct such trade as it can, forming a “bad-boy club” with other nations of the world that are similarly isolated by sanctions and political unpopularity — i.e. Cuba, Iraq, Iran, etc.

Faced with such a dangerous regime, what is the best course for the United States to take? Fifty years of stalemate have shown us that a threatening posture is worse than useless: it only encourages the brinkmanship policy that has led us to shower North Korea with money, food, and oil in exchange for empty promises to curtail its weapons development.

Instead, the most promising approach is to give North Korea a real incentive to open up to the world, to trade, and yes, to the free exchange of ideas that will inevitably accompany this opening. Consider the example of China. In the past 20 years, China has become integrated with the global economy in ways Mao never dreamed of, resulting in unprecedented increases in personal freedom and human rights — granted, with a long way yet to go.

China’s entry into the WTO and its successful Olympic bid give testament to this progress. Yet, at the same time, the basic Chinese way of life has been preserved, and its government has been able to pursue this course of peaceful cooperation without fear for its own survival. The same thing must happen in North Korea.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d take democracy over communist dictatorship any day. Still, we are not going to convince this deeply entrenched regime to just roll over and die. North Korea’s leaders will not agree to anything that directly threatens their power. Our best hope lies in progressive peaceful engagement, including economic investment and acceptance of a different way of life.

South Korean president Kim Dae Jung has known this for decades. His “Sunshine Policy” has led to inter-Korean economic ventures, reunions of separated families, and the first top-level summit in 50 years, not to mention a Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Kim.

Unfortunately, much of this progress came to a screeching halt with Bush’s election. If North Korea is to be encouraged to interact with the West in a peaceful manner, it must be convinced that it can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so to speak. Mr. Bush’s threats perpetuate a half-century of co-existence based on animosity and mutually-assured destruction.

We would be well advised to follow the example of China and the wishes of South Korea’s leadership if we want to see a real thaw along the 38th parallel in our lifetimes.

Jed Meltzer is a graduate student in Neuroscience and a former resident of Seoul, South Korea.