The North Korean crisis has entered a new stage now that the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has referred the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons development to the U.N. Security Council. The isolated Stalinist state, which created a similar crisis a decade ago, has resumed its program to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

How to contain the threat from North Korea is an urgent question facing the international community. In particular, Japan and South Korea, which are exposed directly to the threat, must respond firmly through closer consultation and cooperation with the United States.

The fact is that South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun, and U.S. President George W. Bush remain wide apart. While Roh is pushing inter-Korean dialogue by continuing the “sunshine policy” of engagement, Bush is taking a hardline posture to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear-weapons program.

The challenge for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is scheduled to visit Seoul on Tuesday for talks with Roh shortly after his inauguration, is to restructure the trilateral framework of cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. For that, Koizumi needs first to establish a personal relationship of trust with the new South Korean president.

North Korea has reacted sharply to the IAEA’s decision to bring the nuclear issue before the Security Council, denouncing it as “totally illegitimate intervention in (North Korea’s) internal affairs.” Pyongyang’s bellicosity has escalated since October when it admitted in talks with a visiting U.S. administration official that it was developing nuclear arms.

In December, North Korea decided to resume the suspended operations of nuclear facilities, removed the IAEA seals and expelled its inspectors. And in January Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and indicated that it might also lift a moratorium on missile testing. On Feb. 18 the North warned that it would scrap the 1953 Korean armistice agreement — which ended the Korean War — if the U.S. imposed sanctions.

Sanctions will probably come up for debate at the Security Council if Pyongyang takes more confrontational steps, such as extracting plutonium through the reprocessing of spent-fuel rods and resuming missile launches.

How should the international community deal with North Korea’s nuclear program? The answer depends primarily on what Pyongyang is aiming for. Is it playing a diplomatic card to obtain a security guarantee in the form of a nonaggression treaty with the U.S.? Or is it walking the military path to nuclear armament?

In his meeting with visiting Japanese parliamentarians, Roh expressed his belief that North Korea is using its nuclear program as a “bargaining chip” and that a solution can be found if the U.S. agrees to talks. He also expressed a willingness to continue the sunshine policy of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, saying Pyongyang may give up its nuclear ambitions if it is given economic aid coupled with a security guarantee.

However, Hideshi Takesada, chief researcher at the National Institute for Defense Studies, believes that North Korea’s real aim is to possess nuclear weapons. His personal view is that North Korea is developing weapons of mass destruction for military, not diplomatic, purposes. It is unlikely, therefore, that Pyongyang will dismantle its nuclear program.

George Tenet, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, also believes that North Korea is going nuclear. During testimony at a recent Senate hearing, he said North Korea is trying to forge a fundamentally different relationship with the U.S., one in which Pyongyang receives tacit approval for its nuclear-arms program.

North Korea, he said, already has one or two nuclear bombs, and it is capable of attacking targets on the U.S. West coast with Taepondong-2 three-stage missiles carrying nuclear warheads. According to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the North has an ability to produce sufficient fissile material to make as many as six bombs before this summer.

If North Korea is really trying to build a nuclear arsenal, not just playing a diplomatic game of brinkmanship, then it will become necessary for Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to recalibrate their policies.

Defense analyst Takesada believes that North Korea acquired a capability to attack Japan in the late 1990s. The North’s missile development, he points out, has reached a more advanced stage every five years. During the previous crisis of 1993, Pyongyang test-fired a Nodong one-stage missile over the Sea of Japan.

In 1998 a long-range Taepodong missile flew over the Japanese archipelago and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Five years on, in 2003, North Korea is capable of launching an advanced Taepondong-2 missile that can reach the continental U.S., according to Takesada.

In January, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the U.S. is prepared to promise in writing that it will not invade North Korea, if Pyongyang renounces its nuclear ambitions. This would mean concluding a new comprehensive agreement with the North that would replace the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Meanwhile, Koizumi recently told the Diet that Japan, in close consultation with the U.S. and South Korea as well as international organizations, will keep demanding that Pyongyang scrap its nuclear program. But he quickly added, “We will continue the dialogue (with North Korea).”

What if the North is trying to build nuclear weapons for military purposes and has no intention of abandoning the effort? If that is the case, it will be extremely difficult for Pyongyang and Washington to work out a new agreement. There is even the danger of military tensions escalating.

The different perceptions that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea hold with regard to North Korea’s nuclear development could come to a head with the start of the Roh administration. If that happens, Pyongyang — which wants to have direct talks with Washington — will take advantage of any disunity among the three allies.

Indeed, as one Korea hand puts it, North Korea’s nuclear crisis finds Japan, the U.S. and South Korea in a “very difficult situation” following its referral to the Security Council. Tokyo, Seoul and Washington now urgently require a strategic policy coordination designed to cement their unity.

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