The nuclear crisis in North Korea has taken a back seat to the war in Iraq, but it is far from resolved. On April 10, North Korean President Kim Jong Il's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty becomes effective, and policy-makers are fearful of further provocative steps North Korea might take.
A group of regional experts recently discussed ways of handling the potentially grave situation.
Since October of last year, North Korea has backed out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, evicted International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, re-opened its nuclear facilities and admitted that it has been working on clandestine uranium enrichment programs.
Donald Zagoria heads the U.S.-China-Taiwan Project at the private National Committee on American Foreign Policy. He says the U.S. intelligence community believes that North Korea might already have the capability to manufacture as many as six nuclear weapons by the end of this year. The prospect, he says, is worrying U.S. policy makers.
"The fear is that, if present trends continue, the United States could soon be faced with the equally unpalatable choices of either accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, which would jeopardize the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime and likely trigger a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia, or resorting to military force to stop it," Mr. Zagoria said.
South Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Sun Joun-yung, says North Korea's nuclear capabilities pose a grave and immediate threat to his country, and could have a negative impact on the entire region. He says that there is every reason to believe the situation will deteriorate if left unchecked.
"Nobody can predict what provocative actions North Korea may take in the days and weeks," he said. "North Korea has threatened to take corresponding actions against surveillance satellites launched by Japan last week."
Regional analysts disagree over why North Korea has resorted to nuclear brinkmanship. Some say it is simply a tool to bring the United States to the bargaining table, with the hopes of winning large aid packages and the relaxation of sanctions in exchange for disarmament. Others think it is the tactic of a desperate and isolated state determined to become a nuclear power.
Ralph Cossa, the president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the question may be impossible to answer.
"I would caution you to be very suspicious of anyone who claims that they understand North Korean thinking," he said. "On the other hand, I would urge you to be equally suspicious of anyone who writes Kim Jong Il off as simply crazy or illogical. We are still probably incapable of understanding his logic, but like his father before him, Kim Jong Il has played a very weak hand extremely well. North Korea has existed for many years by being able to play China first against the Soviet Union, now the U.S. against South Korea."
In the weeks and months since the crisis began, North Korea has insisted that it will only participate in bilateral negotiations with the United States. The United States has said the talks must be multilateral and include regional players.
Former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Winston Lord, says the talks must be multilateral because the issue is one with both regional and global ramifications. Other nations, he says, will need to provide incentives and pressures aimed at enforcing an agreement.
He says that relations between North Korea and the United States are just too frayed for them to go it alone.
"I can't believe the North Korean government, given its nature, its cynicism and suspicion - some of it which may be legitimate in terms of U.S. policy - is going to accept a piece of paper from the United States," he said.
Mr. Lord says the negotiations should include South Korea, Russia, Japan and China.
South Korean U.N. Ambassador Sun Joun-yung thinks there should be a bilateral element to the meetings.
"My country supports the multi-lateral approach that has been established by the United States. At the same time, we expect that bilateral meetings can happen," he said. "We are still of the view that the main actor has been and will be the United States in dealing with North Korea. For North Korea, the threat to the security of the country comes only from the United States. If you look at a brief history, North Korea has been called the axis of evil, a potential target of weapons of mass destruction, a potential target of pre-emptive attack, then the sanctions. North Korea has been listed as one of the countries supporting terrorism."
Ambassador Sun cautions the international community not to let the conflict in Iraq distract its attention from efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table as soon as possible.
At the United Nations, the Security Council has agreed to meet next week to discuss the North Korean nuclear crisis for the first time.
Scheduling of the April 9 meeting follows weeks of lobbying by the United States, which has been pressing the 15-member Council to condemn Pyongyang for abandoning the international nuclear safeguards treaty.