Several months ago, North Korea declared it had produced nuclear weapons.
The United States has been saying since October of 2002 that Pyongyang has a secret nuclear weapons program. Since then, North Korea has pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled United Nations monitors and re-opened a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994.
Daryl Kimball is head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization. He says, "That crisis has slowly worsened and today, discussions between the United States and regional allies and North Korea are stalled and North Korea continues to separate plutonium, produce plutonium for weapons. How much plutonium it has is not exactly clear, but it's estimated that it may have anywhere from three to nine bombs worth of plutonium. And the effort today is to try to get the diplomatic dialogue back on track between North Korea, the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea."
Those discussions are known as six-party talks. No meeting has been held since June of last year, after Pyongyang decided to suspend its participation. Delegates to last month's conference in New York reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, or NPT, discussed North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions. But they failed to agree on ways to address the issue.
Ambassador Thomas Graham is a former U.S. representative to previous NPT review conferences and has been involved in every major arms control agreement in the past 30 years. He says conference participants did not focus on ways to deal with nations that have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
According to Mr. Graham, "The United States' position was that North Korea still has obligations under the NPT, even though they have withdrawn from it, in that you can't be a member of the NPT for years, get all these benefits from being a member, then withdraw and take the knowledge that you've learned from peaceful nuclear cooperation and then walk out of the treaty. And furthermore, any violations that you - North Korea, or whoever - committed while you were in the treaty, you're still liable under international law for those violations." Ambassador Graham says it is essential for the international community to strengthen the NPT so that nations would think twice before withdrawing.
Many analysts believe it is imperative for the six-party talks to resume. Ambassador Graham says it is the only way to keep the spotlight on North Korea. "The negotiating parties haven't met for over a year and the meetings that were held never went anywhere," says Mr. Graham. "But the United States remains hopeful that this process eventually can lead to some kind of solution and there have been suggestions from North Korea that they might return to these discussions."
Many analysts believe that for the talks to be successful, China must play a far more active role. One of those is Gregory Jones, a nuclear non-proliferation expert with the RAND Corporation. He says, "Ultimately, the country that has the most pull on North Korea is China and China hasn't wanted to exert its influence to force North Korea into greater compliance. I personally think this is somewhat short-sighted of China, because they seem to have forgotten that if the non-proliferation regime fails, in the past, there have been attempts by South Korea and Taiwan twice, at least, to get nuclear weapons -- and that even a nuclear Japan wouldn't be out of the question if the whole non-proliferation regime does truly collapse. I don't think China is interested in seeing any of those countries being nuclear powers. And I don't think it is necessarily in the U.S.'s interests either."
U.S. officials have called on China to exert more influence on North Korea to get it back into the negotiations. At the same time, Washington has announced it would donate 50-thousand tons of food to North Korea, which is facing another major humanitarian crisis. But State Department officials say the food aid is not related to discussions on Pyongyang's nuclear issue.
This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here