With North Korea making new noises about its nuclear-weapons ambitions, concerns are growing that a crucial window for heading off expansion of the world's nuclear club is closing.
The US wraps up meetings with Japanese and South Korean officials in Honolulu Friday that are expected to end with a call for prompt multilateral talks with the North Koreans.
Despite North Korea's declaration this week that it seeks to build nuclear arms as a less expensive deterrent, prospects for more meetings bringing the US and North Korea to the same table have improved, US officials say. They point to headway made when President Bush met recently with Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Europe and to signs the North is opening to US demands that talks include regional powers. The North Korea issue is also expected to figure, if primarily in the margins, in meetings at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual conference. Secretary of State Colin Powell will attend the conference beginning Monday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
But the flurry of words over North Korea comes during weeks that Pyongyang may be using to proceed with activities that end up producing nuclear bombs, some intelligence officials and nonproliferation experts warn. While the US has been focused on Iraq and the Middle East, they add, it may have left one member of the "axis of evil" trio to become a nuclear power.
"We may look back and see that a nuclear-armed North Korea was the price of the Iraq war," says Steven Miller, director of the international security program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "A North Korea with nuclear weapons will be a much greater international security threat and a much tougher nut to crack. The time to deal with that is now."
For some experts, North Korea's latest justification for developing a nuclear arsenal - as a cheap alternative to maintaining an army of 1.1 million soldiers - is particularly troubling because they see it signaling an irreversible determination to go nuclear. "What this tells me is that they're beginning to make what they consider is an effective case to the world of why their course of action is justifiable," says Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official. "They're putting the best face on their pursuit of a nuclear capability."
The US believes North Korea already has one or two bombs, but their quality and reliability remain a mystery. There has been speculation that the North could produce perhaps a half-dozen bombs within several months.
Such developments would establish North Korea as a member of the nuclear club and potentially allow it to act on its threat to export nuclear materials. "They're making plainer every day their intention not just to acquire, but to retain nuclear status," says Mr. Einhorn, now a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
The US approach appears for now to be to act with regional powers to address the North's weapons-exporting potential, while giving Pyongyang time to adjust to the idea of multilateral talks. Such talks, if the US has its way, would expand Beijing-hosted talks in April so that Seoul and Tokyo are included as well.
But giving a country with an erratic ruler and known proliferation ambitions more time is not perceived as wise by everyone. "Even if we don't know exactly what North Korea's nuclear status is, the relaxed attitude of the Bush administration is hard to understand," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Mr. Cirincione says he sees a continuing divide in the administration over how the "North Korea conundrum" should be addressed. But he says the lack of an easy or obvious response should not rule out closer US attention. "My preference would be that while the administration debates internally how it would like to solve the North Korea problem in the long term, it would still be pressing an all-out effort to stop the short-term turning of plutonium into bombs."
The US has stepped up efforts to interdict the North's exports of weapons materials, and is beginning to get cooperation - so far from Japan and Australia. But that cooperation does not openly include China, Pyongyang's strongest economic supporter.
"The real issue is what the Chinese will be willing to do to coerce North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions," says Harvard's Dr. Miller. "The Chinese have not been willing to do Washington's dirty work, and frankly why should they be? They don't want a nuclear-armed Pyongyang any more than Washington does," he adds, "but other than that, their concerns are different. They don't want a collapsing regime on their border that would send waves of desperate refugees" into China.
North Korea may have indeed decided to go nuclear at any cost. But CSIS's Einhorn says the US still must "test" whether the North is willing to "reverse course" by putting some "reasonable offers" on the table. Then if Pyongyang rebuffs all offers - as Einhorn suspects it might - the US will be in a stronger position to get its reluctant friends in the region to pressure the North.
"The problem is that China and South Korea don't think the US has yet made a reasonable proposal" to the North. "Doing so," he says, "may be the only way to get their cooperation in interdicting the kinds of cargoes we want to stop."