The International Atomic Energy Agency voted this week to bring North Korea’s nuclear violations before the United Nations Security Council. The move increases the pressure on Pyongyang; for that reason, some governments are concerned that North Korea will only respond with more belligerent behavior. The risk is real, but refusing to recognize the seriousness of Pyongyang’s moves is even more dangerous. A failure to hold North Korea responsible for violations of international agreements could undermine the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime.

North Korea has always played fast and loose with its international obligations. Although it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Pyongyang never allowed the special inspections required by the treaty. North Korea originally declared its intent to withdraw from the NPT when the United States discovered a clandestine nuclear weapons development program. A crisis in 1993 almost triggered a U.S. attack on suspected facilities. Instead it yielded the Agreed Framework, which allegedly capped the North’s nuclear weapons program — a claim that could not be guaranteed because Pyongyang never allowed the inspections that would answer vital questions.

The U.S. charge that North Korea violated the Agreed Framework with another nuclear weapons development program — a charge the North has not denied — is not the only international obligation that Pyongyang has broken. The clandestine effort also violates the NPT and the 1991 North-South declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the U.S. leveled those charges in October, Pyongyang has expelled IAEA inspectors, withdrawn from the NPT, taken steps to restart a mothballed nuclear complex that can produce weapons-grade plutonium, and threatened to resume missile tests. Each step has been a carefully calculated attempt to focus world attention on North Korea and secure direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang on a security agreement. The U.S. has been reluctant to reward what it considers “blackmail,” but has apparently come around to the view that some talks are inevitable. The only issue is how to save face for all concerned.

North Korea insists this is a bilateral matter between it and the U.S. alone. The expanding list of international agreements that Pyongyang has violated puts the lie to that assertion. The expulsion of IAEA inspectors means the agency “remains unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material” for weapons use. Thus, the IAEA decision to declare North Korea in “noncompliance” with nuclear nonproliferation protocols and to send the matter to the UNSC is the right thing to do.

Putting the matter on the Security Council agenda does have risks of its own. North Korea has said that it would consider the imposition of economic sanctions “a declaration of war,” but there is no need to go that far yet. All parties, including the U.S., have said that they seek a diplomatic solution to this situation, even though Washington has rightly maintained that all options remain open.

Moving the issue to the Security Council also has implications for Japan. Tokyo has a seat on the IAEA executive board and voted in favor of the motion this week. Japan does not have a seat on Security Council, however, and there is concern that any action taken there will not reflect Japanese input. While demanding that North Korea take the IAEA resolution seriously and “immediately take action to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda also expected any UNSC decision to respect Japanese opinion. South Korea is in a similar situation.

The most likely next step is a condemnation of North Korea’s action and the call for a broad framework to discuss the issue. Among the options are “5+2” talks (to include the five permanent members of the Security Council and Japan and South Korea), or “5+5,” which would include those seven plus North Korea, Australia and the European Union. This broader dialogue would confirm that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs are a legitimate concern of the international community. It would also provide cover for the bilateral dialogue that Pyongyang seeks with Washington.

Only the U.S. can give North Korea the security assurances it craves. But that does not mean that problem — no matter how intractable or complex — can be dumped on the U.S. The nuclear nonproliferation regime reflects the will of the entire international community. It is a bargain among all its signatories, and therefore all of them have a stake in its survival. Solving this North Korean crisis is essential, but so is maintaining the credibility of the NPT. Unless we are careful, we might accomplish the former at the expense of the latter.

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