Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On N. Korea, Diplomatic Clock Runs Down ; during Recent Flurry of Talks, Pyongyang May Be Moving Ahead on Nuclear Plans

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On N. Korea, Diplomatic Clock Runs Down ; during Recent Flurry of Talks, Pyongyang May Be Moving Ahead on Nuclear Plans

Article excerpt

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."

Irreversible determination?

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. …

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