Sudden expansion of North Korea's nuclear program might be a global disaster - even if the United States can successfully prevent Pyongyang from peddling plutonium or whole weapons on the open market.
True, US intelligence already judges that Kim Jong Il's government possesses a few fissile bombs. But there's a big difference between an arsenal of three nuclear weapons, and one of 10, say experts.
If North Koreans have 10, say, they could perhaps afford to test one. This would shock and awe East Asia. It could develop a nuclear strategy, with multiple targets and a deterrent reserve.
Worse, the emergence of North Korea as a declared nuclear power would shuffle security calculations throughout the region. Japan might develop its own program. Other nations could weigh their options in light of Saddam Hussein's fate, and decide that adherence to a nonproliferation regime is for suckers.
"A half dozen other countries could go nuclear" if North Korea is permitted to do so, says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Published reports in recent days have indicated that the Bush administration has begun focusing on preventing North Korea from exporting nuclear material, as opposed to preventing it from gearing up its plutonium production pipeline.
Administration officials insist publicly that their policies have not changed - and that their long-term goal remains the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program in its entirety.
But the state of that program remains a mystery. If North Korea is to be believed, it has already begun reprocessing material to make more weapons, and may have passed a point of no return on its way to becoming a member of the exclusive club of world nuclear powers.
The Clinton administration drew up plans for military strikes against suspected North Korean plutonium production sites during its own standoff with the Kim regime in 1994.
Such preemption seems less likely now, however, given the US involvement in Iraq, and the lack of good intelligence about exactly what North Korea is doing, and where.
Furthermore, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun campaigned on a platform of peaceful engagement with the North, and has all but ruled out armed confrontation as a strategy. Mr. Roh will fly to the US this weekend for a week-long visit capped by a May 14 White House summit with President Bush.
Thus, to some extent, a switch in focus from preemption to containment would be a simple recognition of reality.
"The Bush administration has always operated under the presumption that it's virtually impossible to prevent the North Koreans from producing nuclear weapons," says Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
Don't expect a public declaration of such a policy, though. To do so might give an impression of defeatism or weakness that might embolden North Korea in future negotiations.
Of course, the US might also be trying something else - calling North Korea's bluff. By refusing to get worked up at North Korea's bluster about its progress with plutonium, the US might in essence be saying that it won't be blackmailed into giving North Korea the aid and recognition it desires.
In recent talks Pyongyang managed to be so bellicose that it may have offended even longtime ally China. "The North Koreans are now in danger of pushing themselves into a corner," says Professor Lee of the Fletcher School.
Next moves by all parties in this diplomatic dance, however, are difficult to predict. North Korea, for its part, has been as moody as an adolescent, alternating between nuclear threats and a sort of ominous silence. The US clearly remains split about how to handle a situation in which all options carry some aspect of risk.
Previous news leaks this year indicated that some in the Pentagon might favor a more muscular approach to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, for instance.
"As for the Americans, who knows? They're almost more puzzling to figure out than the North Koreans," says Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
The course of events now depends crucially on North Korea's intentions, and whether China has finally decided to push Pyongyang into some sort of rapprochement with the rest of the world.
"My own personal view is that the North Koreans were interested in a bargain," says Mr. Walsh, "but at a certain point concluded they probably aren't going to get one, so they are hedging ... trying to prepare themselves to get a nuclear weapon."