NORTH KOREA is a fiercely insular nation that could be only months away from assembling an atomic bomb.
North Korea, whose government resembles a medieval-monarchy, would send shock waves around the world if it became a nuclear power. It could cause Japan and other neighbors to plan their own bomb programs. Tensions would tighten in a region increasingly important to the United States.
Early this year, North Korea said it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rather than allow international inspectors to visit several suspected nuclear sites. The withdrawal is set to take effect June 12, though US officials are still guardedly optimistic the decision will be reversed.
US officials may soon meet with North Korean counterparts to try to talk them back into the NPT, although as of this writing a date has not been set.
"We don't yet fully understand what their objectives are," says a US official. "In principle, we are prepared to talk."
Even if it rejoins the NPT, North Korea might be able to continue a clandestine nuclear program. The US and its allies are focusing on quiet diplomacy, because at this point they have few options to block Pyongyang if it is serious in its intentions.
"I think they are pursuing that goal," says Dr. Kongdan Oh, a Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation. "Maybe we have to think about how to survive or live with a nuclearized North Korea." Unwanted scenario
That is not a scenario Western diplomats like to contemplate. After all, North Korea is a country that has blown up South Korean officials on airliners. Its government is a throwback to the 13th century. Aged near-absolute ruler Kim Il Sung is attempting to gradually transfer power to a son, Kim Jong Il, whose apparent lack of emotional stability worries Westerners.
Many Western officials and analysts are convinced North Korea's ostensibly civilian nuclear-power infrastructure has secretly produced weapons-grade plutonium. The only real debate is over how much - and how close North Korean scientists might be to converting this material into weapons.
In February 1991, then-CIA director Robert Gates said he thought a North Korean bomb could become a reality within a few months, or perhaps several years. More optimistic estimates within the US government tend toward the high end of that range.
If North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, the security calculations of its neighbors could drastically change. South Korea would feel suddenly very vulnerable, US security guarantees notwithstanding. Seoul could well restart its own clandestine nuclear program, which was ended under US pressure in the mid-1970s.
Japan would also certainly reevaluate its position in the world. A North Korean nuclear weapon could be simply shipped into Tokyo harbor on a tramp steamer - or mounted on top of a missile capable of reaching the Japanese homeland.
If Japan responded with its own nuclear program, or even simply a buildup of conventional weapons, all of East Asia would become nervous.
US officials are particularly anxious about North Korea's willingness to peddle weapons. Some US analysts rate North Korea a priority worry, just behind control of the ex-Soviet Union's arsenal.
The problem is that there are no obvious ways North Korea can be blocked from becoming a nuclear power. The West has few levers of influence on a nation that has little contact with the outside world.
Economic sanctions would be largely pointless, as Pyongyang buys little from outside the country and has preached self-reliance for decades. China as diplomatic ally
China might be of some diplomatic help - Beijing wants North Korea to remain within the NPT, too, according to US officials. But even though China is the closest thing to a friend North Korea has, relations between the two have reportedly become strained over the nuclear issue.
Some hawkish US voices, such as the chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, have said the US needs to be prepared for military action if North Korea presses ahead.
But at close inspection, the bombing option may promise no more chance of success than the diplomatic one.
Firstly, the chances of wiping out North Korea's bomb program with military action do not appear great.
The reactors and plutonium separation facilities of North Korea's nuclear infrastructure are vulnerable - but only if an attacker is prepared to risk spreading deadly radioactive debris around the Korean peninsula. In any case North Korea is thought already to have plutonium for at least one weapon. Plutonium, once produced, is a small package that is easy to hide.
Secondly, any bombing raid would likely generate a huge military response. North Korea is heavily armed with conventional weapons, and could well again invade the south if attacked first.
So what to do? Quiet diplomacy, plus patience, appears the only immediate answer. Dr. Oh of RAND suggests that North Korea simply be waited out. Its tottering economy, she says, will eventually collapse.
North Korea may come to the point of view that it needs to open up to the West if it is to sustain any semblance of economic life. That is a logical conclusion. But nuclear weapons do carry prestige and power - and North Korea may press ahead, even at the risk of complete isolation.