The issue of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development could reach a critical stage in June, one year after the suspension of six-party talks. U.S. intelligence says Pyongyang might conduct a nuclear test that month.

Will the North return to the table and rejoin a process aimed at ending its nuclear program? Or will it test a nuclear weapon and bring the dialogue to a halt once and for all? The six-nation forum stands at a crossroads.

In February, shortly after President George W. Bush entered his second term, North Korea declared that it possessed nuclear weapons and announced that it would “indefinitely suspend” the six-party talks. Pyongyang seeks direct talks with Washington to get a U.S. security guarantee for Kim Jong Il’s regime.

On May 13, a meeting between U.S. and North Korean working-level officials signaled Washington’s willingness to accept the North Korean request for security assurances. The Bush administration has recognized North Korea as a “sovereign state,” making it clear to Pyongyang that the United States has “no intention of attacking” that country.

The question is how the Kim regime will respond to this U.S. policy. If it reacts negatively and stays away from the six-party talks, U.S. opinion, particularly in the Republican Party, will harden, lending further support to calls for tough action against the North, such as a referral to the U.N. Security Council — a move expected to lead to economic sanctions.

On the other hand, North Korea’s return to the talks in itself will be no assurance of its willingness to abandon nuclear weapons. That’s clear from past events. In either case, tensions in Northeast Asia will likely increase.

It appears that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development has proceeded according to Kim’s script. In 1993, Pyongyang expressed its intention of withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), touching off a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The following year the U.S. and North Korea signed the Framework Agreement to freeze the nuclear program. In 2002, though, Pyongyang admitted to uranium enrichment for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons. The North apparently had used the agreement as a cover for continuing its program.

In January 2003, North Korea declared it would pull out of the NPT. That summer, two months after the first round of six-party talks, it said it had completed the reprocessing of spent fuel rods. Thus Pyongyang has shrewdly used the nuclear card, pushing its nuclear program while paying lip service to the six-party dialogue.

The talks have been suspended since last June when the third round ended inconclusively. This month North Korea announced that it had unloaded an additional 8,000 spent fuel rods.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says North Korea already has enough plutonium to build up to six nuclear weapons. The newly unloaded fuel rods would make it possible to produce more.

The Bush administration, whose preoccupation with the Iraq war has distracted it from the North Korean crisis, has effectively allowed North Korea to continue its nuclear-weapons development.

With China and Russia, as well as South Korea, becoming increasingly reluctant to apply diplomatic pressure or impose economic sanctions on the North, America has found itself unable to take the initiative at six-party meetings. Pyongyang has, for all practical purposes, taken advantage of this situation.

Events of the past decade make it clear that the Kim regime has no intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions. The nuclear-weapons program represents the regime’s only bargaining chip to secure a U.S. guarantee of survival.

Experts were once divided over whether North Korea was actually aiming to produce nuclear arms or using the nuclear program as a tool of brinkmanship. Few would disagree now that the North seeks to become a nuclear-weapons state. In fact, Pyongyang has said it wants to “increase its nuclear arsenal for defensive purposes.”

North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development is an open challenge to — indeed, a blatant violation of — the Pyongyang Declaration signed in 2002 by Kim and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The declaration states the two countries will “cooperate in maintaining and strengthening the peace and stability of Northeast Asia” and “abide by all related international agreements with a view toward the comprehensive resolution of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.”

If North Korea goes ahead with a nuclear test and becomes a nuclear-weapons state, it will have a profound impact on international security. A nuclear-armed North Korea would pose a direct threat to Japan, which lies within the 1,300-km range of Nodong missiles already in position. As a result, Japan’s defense and security system would come under drastic review. The U.S. military realignment plan here would also be affected significantly.

The U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee has published a report analyzing the possible impact of a North Korean nuclear test and predicting the security responses it would likely provoke in the U.S. and its Asian allies.

If North Korea were to be recognized as a nuclear-weapons state, the report warns, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would move to obtain their own nuclear weapons, “leading to dramatic consequences for U.S. national security interests.” Militarily, the report says, missile defense arrangements between the U.S. and its allies would be strengthened, while the U.S. is expected “to expand its permanently stationed forces at sea and on land, including possible nuclear deployment.”

It remains to be seen whether North Korea will conduct a nuclear test. China, the largest provider of supplies to North Korea, opposes such a test. If the North goes ahead with a test explosion, it would lose the support of China — support that is badly needed in its negotiations with the U.S.

The question is whether China will be able to hold back North Korea in keeping with the international strategy of maintaining a “nonnuclear Korean Peninsula.” As the presiding member of the six-party talks, China now faces a critical test of its diplomatic strength.

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