North Korea shocked the world with its announcement Feb. 10 that it will “indefinitely” stay away from the six-party talks on its nuclear arms program and that it already has nuclear weapons.

Resorting to its notorious brinkmanship for raising the stakes when negotiations are stalled, North Korea has strengthened its “nuclear card” in an effort to force concessions from the United States. But the move is likely to cause further isolation for the reclusive state.

Japan, the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia must cooperate closely to get North Korea to return to negotiations. Otherwise, North Korea will progress further in its nuclear arms program and stockpile more nuclear weapons and materials, increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation to other countries and terrorist groups.

North Korea has played its nuclear card often. In 1993, it announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After it signed, with the United States, the 1994 Agreed Framework for freezing its nuclear arms development, it continued clandestine efforts to build nuclear weapons. In March 2003, Pyongyang officially withdrew from the NPT.

In August 2003, the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions started under China’s chairmanship. North Korea’s nuclear gamesmanship has culminated in the latest announcement. What does North Korea want?

The North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il is looking for security guarantees from the U.S. It has been pushing its nuclear arms program to secure those guarantees. Moreover, it wants direct negotiations with Washington.

In the six-party talks aimed at eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, three sessions were held between August 2003 and June 2004. Since then, North Korea has ignored calls to resume the talks as it awaited the results of the U.S. presidential election and then watched for policy clues in the new administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Seeing little change in the new administration, North Korea apparently has made a new gambit to drive wedges among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.

In his State of the Union message, Bush said the U.S. is working closely with Asian governments “to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.” The comment was conciliatory, in contrast to his 2002 message that branded North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as the “axis of evil.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly said the U.S. has no intention of invading or attacking North Korea.

Despite Washington’s conciliatory approach, North Korea has announced a hardline stance because it is under pressure to respond at the next session of the six-party talks to specific U.S. proposals on a process to abolish its nuclear program. The proposals were made in the third session eight months ago.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan played down the North Korean announcement, saying “we’ve heard of lot of rhetoric from them in the past.” He also rejected direct talks with North Korea, saying the nuclear arms issue is “a regional matter that affects the countries in the region.”

How much progress has North Korea made in its nuclear arms program?

The South Korean Defense Ministry says in its latest white paper that North Korea is likely to have built one or two nuclear bombs. North Korea claims it reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods in 2003, prompting speculation that it had enough plutonium for several nuclear devices. North Korea’s latest announcement demonstrates that it is pushing strategies to build a nuclear arsenal.

North Korea’s nuclear arms development poses a direct threat to Japan and an increasing risk of nuclear proliferation in the world. As North Korea’s nuclear development makes headway, exports of nuclear arms and materials will become a real possibility.

The New York Times reported early this month that the U.S. government has obtained evidence indicating that North Korea is likely to have sold weapons-grade uranium to Libya.

Washington calls transfers of nuclear materials from a certain country to foreign countries and terrorist groups the “red line.” North Korea’s acknowledgment of possessing nuclear arms and reported transfers of nuclear materials to Libya could prompt calls for a tougher U.S. policy stance against the state.

In its statement, North Korea left open the possibility of resuming the six-party talks by indicating its readiness to solve the nuclear issue through “dialogues and negotiations” and reaffirming its commitment to the ultimate goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. This is a very crafty tactic.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who signed the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration with Kim Jong Il, must have been stunned by the North Korean announcement. In answering questions before the Diet, he said Kim obviously was not adhering to the declaration. The document said both sides pledged to comply with international law and not to take action that would threaten the security of the other side.

Pyongyang’s announcement that it owns nuclear arms plus its moves to expand its arsenal of mid-range Nodong missiles capable of hitting Japan represent a serious threat to this nation.

In Japan, calls have mounted for economic sanctions against Pyongyang in connection with the unresolved issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the past. Diplomatic normalization between Japan and North Korea must be based on a comprehensive settlement of all problems with North Korea, including the nuclear arms and missile issues.

There is little support for North Korea’s unilateralist strategies in the international community. To move North Korea, close cooperation is essential among the five other countries in the six-party talks, especially China, Russia and South Korea, which have tended to take a softer approach toward the state. After all, the five are players, not spectators.

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