The International Atomic Energy Agency decided Wednesday to send North Korea's noncompliance with international nuclear safeguards to the United Nations Security Council - a step the Bush administration had sought.
With its focus firmly on Iraq, the US is anxious to turn North Korea's restarted nuclear program from a US-North Korea conflict to what President Bush calls a "multilateral" issue. "The Bush administration is not in a hurry now, so you will not have the arm-twisting as on Iraq," says Bates Gill, an expert on Northeast Asia and nonproliferation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The agenda is to go slower on North Korea."
But the IAEA decision risks reviving widespread doubts about why one country in violation of international nuclear-weapons regulations is treated with diplomatic gloves, while another - Iraq - faces war. The move could also distract attention from the North Korean problem at a dangerous moment, experts say.
"This is in line with the Bush administration's desire to kick the problem down the road," says Paul Kerr, a North Korea expert at the Arms Control Association in Washington. "The problem is that, as we know from CIA and other reports, the North Koreans are within months of turning their spent fuel into maybe a half-dozen nuclear weapons."
Mr. Kerr says the IAEA move is tantamount to "inaction" - and risks allowing the North time to become a nuclear power.
In testimony before Congress Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration believes the problem can be addressed diplomatically. But in separate congressional testimony Tuesday, CIA Director George Tenet said a nuclear-arms race among small countries could be the hallmark of the 21st century. "We have entered a new world of proliferation," he said.
The US hopes that moving the North Korean crisis to the Security Council will encourage North Korea to enter multilateral talks. But permanent council member China is signaling little enthusiasm for that, preferring to see direct US-North Korean talks.
The US has expressed hope that China and Russia will exert more pressure on Pyongyang. The US has until now resisted calls by some Asian countries to talk directly with North Korea and offer reassurances, like a nonaggression pact, that could break the logjam. Some experts say the US might be more open to this in a multilateral context. "I think the key obstacle is what sort of muscle is the United Nations, and other important players like China, willing to put forward," Mr. Gill says.
• Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.