SEOUL — As North Korea accelerates the pace of its nuclear weapons program, the United States and its allies have limited options to prevent one of the world's poorest and most erratic nations from becoming a nuclear power.
In a matter of weeks, faint hope that North Korea might be coaxed into voluntarily dismantling its nuclear facilities through multinational talks has all but evaporated.
The Bush administration appears to have ruled out any kind of preemptive strike on North Korea, which with its conventional artillery alone could inflict massive casualties on neighboring South Korea and the more than 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there. And with diplomacy failing, nonproliferation experts have begun to speak despairingly of the inevitability of a nuclear North Korea.
U.S. spy satellites have detected what could be the groundwork for an underground nuclear test around the city of Kilju, officials said Friday. There are other ominous signs as well. Last weekend, the North Koreans launched a missile into the Sea of Japan, possibly a new ballistic missile that could reach U.S. bases in South Korea. The main North Korean nuclear reactor at Yongbyon has been shut down in apparent preparation for the extraction of more plutonium.
"It looks like North Korea is intent on becoming a nuclear power, and the time is running out to stop it," South Korean legislator Park Jin, a member of the National Assembly's defense committee, said Friday.
The CIA has believed for some time that North Korea might have one or two nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang, the capital, announced Feb. 10 that it had nuclear capability. But it has not been officially deemed a nuclear power by the international community because it has not tested a device.
"The general working assumption is that they could test with relatively little warning if they choose to do so," a U.S. official in Washington said Friday. The factors in their decisions probably would be "more political than technical."
Among American policymakers, North Korea has long been known by the epithet "land of lousy options." Never has it seemed to them more true, watching from the sidelines as Pyongyang puts its nuclear program on fast-forward.
During a previous nuclear showdown, when Bill Clinton was president, and another tense period in 2003, policymakers stared down the path of military action and blanched. Although there is no doubt that the United States and its allies would prevail in any contest, military analysts believe that North Korea could kill hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea and perhaps Japan before it goes down in defeat.
More recently, various ideas have been floated, including a quarantine to block potential North Korean export of nuclear materials and or economic sanctions.
But the United States and its allies would not be able to do anything like, for example, the naval blockade imposed during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 without the active cooperation of China. Most of North Korea's trade today crosses the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which form the 800-mile border between the countries, and so far, China has been reluctant to put the squeeze on Pyongyang.
South Korea might be similarly loath to suspend joint projects in which considerable national prestige has been invested, such as its new industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
At the United Nations, any tough measures by the Security Council are likely to be vetoed by China or Russia.
In any event, policy analysts believe it is unlikely that the U.N. has greater clout with the recalcitrant North Korean leader Kim Jong Il than the other participants in the six-nation nuclear talks -- the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
"What's the U.N. going to do? Pass a Security Council resolution saying that it's a bad idea for North Korea to proliferate? I don't want to say, 'So what?' but it's pretty close," said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This may be one of those problems for which there is simply no good solution."
The Bush administration is officially pushing for another round of six-party talks. But almost a year has elapsed since the last meetings in Beijing, making the process look, in the words of North Korean specialist Robert J. Einhorn, "like a futile course of action."
"We should already have been exploring a Plan B," said Einhorn, who negotiated with North Korea for the Clinton administration.
A senior State Department official said the administration wants to pursue the talks while strengthening such measures as the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational agreement to try to keep nations such as North Korea from exporting nuclear materials.