WASHINGTON — Winston Churchill once suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaging in overkill with their propensity for building large numbers of nuclear weapons.
Beyond a certain point, he said, these weapons would serve no purpose other than to "bounce the rubble."
North Korea now has one or two weapons and Secretary of State Colin Powell says that number may soar to six in a matter of months. Pyongyang, according to analysts, is a long way from the nuclear redundancy that Churchill found in superpower weapons development programs decades ago. Yet, at North Korea's levels, there is broad agreement inside and outside of government that each new weapon is significant.
"North Korea's options increase exponentially with each additional nuclear device that it has in its arsenal," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
He acknowledges that the largest leap North Korea took occurred when it went from "zero to one" and made itself much more of a force to be reckoned with.
But with six nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them, a whole range of targets in South Korea and Japan, not to mention U.S. military bases in Northeast Asia, "can be credibly threatened," Eberstadt says.
Robert Einhorn, a former State Department Korea expert who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees with Eberstadt's thesis.
But he cites an additional concern. "With one or two weapons, you're not going to sell any to any country or group," he says. "But if you have six or seven, and you're desperate enough . . . you might be tempted to export the technology" — with incalculable consequences for international power balances, he says.
Powell is concerned about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions but says it is not yet time to hit the panic button. He noted in interviews on Sunday that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for some time without serious consequences. He is hopeful that international pressure can induce the North to dismantle its program.
"We have months to watch this unfold to see what happens," he says.
Powell says he does not want to reward the North's "bad behavior" by opening negotiations.
But Alan Romberg, an Asia expert formerly at the State Department and now at the Henry L. Stimson Center, says the administration may have no choice but to cut a deal with the North.
He says the United States should be willing to offer the North formal security assurances under circumstances in which the Pyongyang would agree to dismantle its nuclear programs.
Romberg acknowledges that, given the North's propensity for violating promises to become a non-nuclear state, comprehensive verification of any such arrangement would be critical.
Eberstadt believes the outcome of the standoff with North Korea could well be influenced by whether the United States goes to war with Iraq and, if so, whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is removed from power.
If that goal is achieved, that would mean the elimination of one-third of President Bush's "axis of evil." North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Il knows he also is on the "axis" list and there would "certainly be the implicit threat" that if Saddam goes Kim could be removed next, Eberstadt says.
How Kim would react is not clear. If Saddam survives, the Korea crisis would take on a different — but difficult to predict — coloration.
Sandy Berger and Robert Gallucci, who were top foreign policy aides to former President Clinton, say the Bush administration should give equal priority to both Iraq and North Korea.
The administration cannot afford delay on North Korea because Pyongyang, left unchecked, can make the Asia-Pacific region a far more dangerous place within months, Berger and Gallucci wrote in an opinion piece in Tuesday's Washington Post.
Deferring action on Iraq also would be a mistake, they wrote, because it would send a "chilling message" if the United States were to be "knocked off course in one arena by trouble-making in another."
Both developing crises should be dealt with at once, Berger and Gallucci say. "There are no safe back burners."
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.