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The stunning revelation that North Korea has a clandestine nuclear-weapons program casts a dark cloud over the future of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. It also dampens prospects for Japanese-North Korean normalization talks, not to mention the resumption of U.S.-North Korean dialogue.

To achieve a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, it is imperative that the major players in the region — the United States, Japan, China and Russia — foster an ad hoc “concert of powers,” just as they have done in the war on terrorism. If these East Asian powers truly recognize the urgency of deterring war, halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ending instability on the Korean Peninsula, they should make concerted efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon the nuclear option as a means of survival.

North Korea’s stunning admission casts a poor light on the “Pyongyang Declaration” that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il signed on Sept. 17, in which the North Korean leader promised in the document to “comply with all related international agreements” for an overall resolution of nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang has also undermined the fragile peace process that has been emerging between the North and the South since the historic summit between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il in June 2000. Although Washington has vowed to seek a peaceful solution to the North Korean problem, it is unlikely that it will tolerate North Korea “going nuclear.”

The Bush administration has made it clear that it regards the engagement process with North Korea not as an end in itself but as a means to accomplish substantive results. This is why U.S. special envoy James Kelly apparently refused to accommodate Pyongyang’s attempts at striking a grand bargain between its nuclear programs and Washington’s political and economic sanctions when he met with North Korean officials at the beginning of the month.

Unless the North demonstrates a willingness to leave the proliferation business by fully complying with the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards that it had agreed to when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it will be difficult for Washington, and perhaps Tokyo, too, to normalize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

In principle, all of the major powers profess support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. And all of these powers are trying to engage North Korea and draw it into the international community by improving bilateral relations with it. One drawback of bilateral negotiations, though, is that North Korea can drive wedges between the various parties. For example, after making its surprise admission that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens, North Korea was expecting that Washington would emulate Tokyo’s example and drop its hostile attitude toward the North.

It is time for the major powers to transform these bilateral negotiations into an ad-hoc concerted effort so that they can deliver the same message of peace and nuclear nonproliferation to North Korea. In the Pyongyang Declaration, Tokyo and Pyongyang shared a “recognition that it is important to have a framework in place in order for these regional countries to promote confidence-building.”

Now that China has begun to play a constructive role in fighting international terrorism and nuclear proliferation in addition to helping resolve humanitarian issues involving North Korean asylum seekers, it should be possible for Beijing, along with Moscow, to join efforts aimed at multilateral security cooperation. Without concerted measures to persuade Pyongyang to change its behavior, it will be difficult to reach a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem.

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