As North Korea escalates its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is bringing the threat of a nuclear arms race to its most ominous level in four decades.
The threat is all the more alarming because the nations involved - forming an unstable nuclear-proliferation belt stretching from Pyongyang to Baghdad - are within a five-minute strike of other would-be nuclear powers. That proximity, minimizing decision time in crises, is one factor making the current situation more complex for America and other nations to manage than the face-off between America and the former Soviet Union during the cold war.
Moreover, it is not clear that these countries are pursuing these arms solely for cold-war-style deterrence, making concerns about proliferation all the more acute.
"This is the most dangerous time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis," says Michael Krepon, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Stimson Center in Washington. "And the dangers are compounded because we are not just worried about one country. We are worried about Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and the Indian subcontinent."
The US has made clear it will address this crisis through diplomatic channels, but the reality is that the region's powers, beginning with China and Russia, have differing interests in how proliferation is handled.
Both China and Russia have a history of helping neighbors with nuclear programs, an issue the US will have to confront more forcefully as its diplomats visit the region beginning next week.
"Acquiring nuclear weapons is worrying because they can sell them," says David Kay, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Va., and a former UN chief nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq. "Instead of North Korea shipping missiles to Yemen [as it did two weeks ago], they could ship nuclear warheads."
Experts and government officials say if these countries aren't stopped, this could spiral into a much broader arms race.
If North Korea develops a nuclear arsenal, for example, how will South Korea and Japan respond? Or, if Iraq goes nuclear, why wouldn't Iran continue to pursue its own arsenal - in the name of deterrence - and several other neighbors in the region as well?
The challenge, of course, is how to stop these countries. During the cold war, Mr. Kay points out, the former Soviet Union and the US were able to place "chokeholds" on their allies, preventing them from pursuing their own programs. But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it's mainly the US that shoulders the responsibility - either by acting unilaterally or by building multilateral coalitions. And that responsibility includes a great deal of aid - in the billions - to prevent former Soviet Union nuclear supplies from falling into the wrong hands.
Granted, there are international agreements in place. All the countries that are now worrisome signed the NPT except for Pakistan. And all of them - including Pakistan - belong to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog, and have received assistance from it - in return for allowing monitoring - to pursue peaceful nuclear energy programs.
"The only difference is the intention of the government," says Kay. He points out that Iran said it was cooperating with Russia to build a peaceful program. But suddenly, two facilities appeared in the desert that had nothing to do with nuclear energy, but with weapons processing. And "the North Koreans signed the NPT and managed to fool the inspectors for about eight years, as the Iraqis had before."
Iraq, of course, is the highest on the US targets of President Bush's "axis of evil" countries. But the US has all but abandoned its unilateral approach toward Iraq and has worked hard to build a multilateral coalition. Still, as Iraq continues to bob and weave with the UN, the US continues its military build-up in the region and says it will go to war if it finds Iraq in "material breach" of UN Resolution 1441.
"We do have to separate Saddam Hussein from his weapons of mass destruction," says the Stimson Center's Krepon. "Preferably through diplomacy, but if necessary, through military means. At the same time, we need to strengthen treaty regimes.... We need to engage North Korea and Iran."
North Korea - another of the "axis of evil" countries - has come to the fore as the most challenging of the three in recent days. It is daily ratcheting up its threats to restart its nuclear program, mothballed after the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated between the US and North Korea.
In addition to retooling its manufacturing capabilities, "North Korea continues to export complete ballistic missiles and production capabilities ... primarily to Iran, Libya, Syria, and Egypt," said CIA Director George Tenet, in testimony before the Senate earlier this year.
The US has taken a more low-key approach toward North Korea than Iraq, treating this as more of a northeast Asia problem than a US problem.
"This is a great opportunity for the US to play the multilateral card," says Kay.
He asserts that the US should leverage its relationships with China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia - the countries that have greater stakes in the region.
But the US is going to run into conflicting interests as it seeks to address the proliferation challenge in a region that has defied efforts at regional security solutions for decades.
In the first place, every key player from Japan to Russia wants the US involved -- no one favors a nuclear-armed North Korea. Yet while Asia experts see an opportunity for the region's powers to put heavy pressure on Pyongyang, at the same time both Russia and China are especially wary of any action that would enhance American power and prestige in the region.
Conflicting approaches to the crisis are already emerging. The US is hoping for enhanced international economic sanctions to force North Korea's hand. But that approach is likely to run into resistance from China and South Korea. Given their proximity to the North, both countries see little attraction in steps that could push a crumbling neighbor closer to collapse.
"China has extensive trade and diplomatic links with North Korea," Kay says. "The Chinese have no interest in a military conflict on the Korean peninsula," he says. "And war and disruption would tear China's economic miracle asunder and pose serious political issues."
The third of the "axis of evil" countries, Iran, last week announced that it would continue its construction of a nuclear power plant - with help from Russia. But the US still has concerns that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon.
The US continues to pressure Russia to stop supporting Iran's nuclear efforts, but so far, Russia - for its own economic interests - has continued to help.
"Russia continues to supply significant assistance on nearly all aspects of Tehran's nuclear program," Mr. Tenet told the Senate. "It is also providing Iran assistance on long-range ballistic missile programs."
The third worrisome area is the India subcontinent. "Both India and Pakistan are working on the doctrine and tactics for more advanced nuclear weapons, producing fissile material, and increasing their nuclear stockpiles," Tenet told the Senate.
Both countries have tested delivery systems for their nuclear weapons, and continue to threaten each other over the Kashmir region. Just yesterday, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf told Pakistani Air Force veterans that he had been prepared to use nuclear weapons earlier this year - at the height of Indian-Pakistani tensions.
"I personally conveyed messages to [Indian] Prime Minister Vajpayee through every international leader who came to Pakistan, that if Indian troops moved a single step across the international border or Line of Control, they should not expect a conventional war from Pakistan," President Musharraf said, according to The Associated Press.
Part of the problem with the Indian-Pakistani build-up, according to experts, is that no one stepped in - other than the placement of limited sanctions on the countries - to stop them from pursuing nuclear weapons.
"No one wanted to get caught in the Indian-Pakistani conflict," says Kay. But both he and Krepon say this is now one of the most dangerous regions of the world.
One factor that makes this so true today, unlike during the years of the cold-war arms race, is that countries seeking nuclear arms have so many more experts from whom to glean the technology they need.
"Nuclear technology used to be the stuff of Nobel prizes, [but] this is pretty easy science these days," Kay says. "The golden days when you thought you could control the technology you owned are long gone.
"If North Korea, the poorest of the poor, can develop [nuclear weapons," he adds, "then any country that is willing to do it can do it."