North Korea's spent nuclear fuel rods being cooled
Several months ago, North Korea declared it had produced nuclear weapons. The United States has been saying for several years 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.

At the same time it announced it has nuclear weapons, Pyongyang said it is suspending indefinitely its participation in the so-called six-party talks discussing its controversial nuclear program. The United States has said a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable and the best way to address that issue is through the six-party talks.

Henry Sokolski, Director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center and a former U.S. Defense Department official, says those talks have produced little since they began in August 2003. Mr. Sokolski says, "Those talks - we call them the six-party talks with Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the United States - I don't think they have a bright future. They may continue in some fashion, but the question will be, what will we do as it becomes clear that North Korea has no interest in giving up its program? And I think the short answer is try to somehow contain the regime in hopes that it will somehow give way to something better - but that could be a very long process."

Other experts say it is imperative for the six-party talks to resume, arguing it is the only way to keep a spotlight on North Korea. No meeting has been held since June of last year.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, says for the talks to be successful, each side must be willing to compromise. According to Mr. Kimball, "The basic problem there is that you have the North Koreans demanding concessions on the part of the U.S. and the other parties, ahead of demonstrable progress by North Korea on freezing and dismantling its nuclear program. On the other hand, the United States is insisting that North Korea declare and begin to dismantle its program, before incentives such as energy aid or economic assistance are forthcoming from the other parties. So somewhere in the middle, I think there is a possibility for a deal, but it requires some flexibility on the part of the key players, the United States and North Korea. I don't see that coming right now, and as a result of that intransigence, I think we are going to see a worsening situation on the Korean peninsula.

That view is shared by Graham Allison, who has written extensively, for many years, on nuclear non-proliferation issues. He believes North Korea's announcement that it has nuclear weapons could have a domino effect in the region.

Mr. Allison notes, "If North Korea becomes a nuclear weapon state, it won't be too long before Japan becomes a nuclear weapon state. And then you are going to have some kind of nuclear arms race between Japan and China and you already have worsening relations to start with. And probably South Korea will become a nuclear weapon state. And then from our perspective, worrying about nuclear terrorism, there is every reason to think that a nuclear-armed North Korea, with a nuclear weapons production line, will also be a nuclear weapons salesman. So they could sell a nuclear bomb, or the material from which a bomb could be made, to Osama Bin Laden. He could then bring it to an American city and it could explode. I think this is a very, very dangerous situation there today."

Delegates to the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York are expected to discuss the North Korean issue.

William Potter, Director of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute, says delegates will focus on North Korea's - or the DPRK's - withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty.

Mr. Potter says, "This is going to be a subject of considerable debate. I think many countries will seek to address the issue in the context of the ability of states to withdraw from the treaty. The perception is that the DPRK exploited the so-called 'article four, peaceful uses provisions' to acquire the capabilities to produce nuclear weapons, withdraws from the treaty and acts in a fashion that contravenes the intent of the NPT - and that's a precedent that most state parties want to prevent other countries from following."

However Mr. Potter also says some countries, such as Japan and South Korea - do not want the review conference to discuss the North Korea issue. They say it should be addressed within the context of the six-party talks. But as experts have pointed out - those negotiations are suspended.


This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program.  To see more Focus stories click here.