It has become increasingly apparent that North Korea has no intention of giving up its aspirations for nuclear arms no matter what concessions the US, South Korea and Japan offer, a conclusion with which many analysts in the US intelligence community concur.
Once this realization has sunk in, policymakers in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo will be required to forge new foreign policies and security postures to cope with a nuclear-armed North Korea. What's more, China will be forced to exert whatever influence it can over its roguish ally in Pyongyang.
For weeks, the North Koreans have grasped every opportunity imaginable to assert that they will not return to the six-party negotiations in Beijing led by China and including, besides North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
Among its latest pronouncements, a spokesman for Pyong-yang's foreign ministry asserted that the "hostile policy" of the US was to blame for a stalemate in the negotiations. He said that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) "felt no need to explain what it [hostile policy] meant."
A diplomat in North Korea's mission at the UN contended that the US was scheming to overthrow his government.
"We can't talk with the United States," Han Song-ryol said, "whether it's in the six-nation talks or a bilateral dialogue."
It does not matter to Pyong-yang who wins the US election in November -- President George W. Bush, the Republican who continues to advocate engaging North Korea through multinational talks, or Senator John Kerry, the Democrat who argues that the US should negotiate with North Korea in bilateral talks.
As the Korean Central News Agency says: "The DPRK does not care who becomes president in the US."
Living with a nuclear-armed North Korea will have immediate, mid-term and long-range consequences.
In the immediate future, the US will still be capable of massive retaliation should North Korea launch a nuclear or conventional attack against US forces in Asia or its allies in South Korea or Japan. In that event, US doctrine under both Republican and Democratic administrations has long called explicitly for the destruction of the North Korean regime.
Politically, North Korea will have lost the bargaining leverage that its nuclear programs have provided, as negotiations will have ended. Pyongyang will not get the diplomatic recognition from the US that it urgently desires, and probably not from Tokyo. Reconciliation with Seoul may be set back.
Economically, sanctions against Pyongyang will remain in place and the aid and trade that it desperately needs for its starving people will not be forthcoming from the US or Japan.
In the mid-term, the international nuclear non-proliferation endeavor intended to prevent the spread of nuclear arms will be dealt another blow. Israel, Pakistan and India have already damaged that effort; Iraq's nuclear plans, whatever they were, have been stopped, but Iran's are believed to be moving ahead.
South Korea, which sought nuclear arms in the 1970s but was dissuaded by the US, may reconsider. A dozen years ago, when North Korea's nuclear plans became known, senior South Korean officials said, as one put it: "If they have them, we must have them."
Nuclear arms in North Korea will undoubtedly stimulate more discussion in Japan about obtaining nuclear arms, but that's as far as it is likely to go since the nuclear allergy that is the legacy of World War II is still strong there. Moreover, basing such weapons, most likely at sea, would be difficult and costly.
The key element in precluding Japan from going nuclear is the US umbrella designed to protect Japan. The US may need to reassure the Japanese that they will be secure without their own nuclear arms.
The long-term consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea are the most frightening, as Pyongyang could easily find a market for those weapons in terrorist networks in the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and maybe Latin America.
Tracing and deterring sales shipments would be harder than discouraging a North Korean attack on South Korea. Targets in North Korea are known and have been marked; discovering air or sea shipments of the components of a nuclear weapon would be next to impossible.
Coping with that threat will be more a chore for China than the US and its allies. No more than the US, South Korea and Japan do the Chinese want to see terrorists allied with pirates in the South China Sea endangering their oil lifeline from the Middle East or shipping lanes to export markets everywhere.
Richard Halloran is a Hawaii-based journalist.
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