The nuclear challenge posed by North Korea
The coming weeks were expected to be a time for steady progress on talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. A Chinese envoy was expected in North Korea over the Lunar New Year, presumably to encourage the isolated Stalinist country to return to six-way talks that have stalled since June. The optimism and expectation was underscored by a flurry of consultations between North Korea's five negotiating partners and, importantly, by a softening of rhetoric from the United States.
Instead of setting a date, the region's diplomats are left to read between the lines following the regime's confirmation that it does have nuclear weapons, as suspected. Moreover, the North has withdrawn from negotiations indefinitely. The sudden revelation has left Beijing, host of the talks, with a diplomatic black eye. It has also left the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea expressing various degrees of regret over the comments but clearly unwilling to say anything more until they can regroup and formulate a unified response.
As an indication of just how unpredictable and infuriating the government run by Kim Jong-il can be, the comments are seen by some as a negotiating tactic ahead of the next round of meetings. Certainly, the hopes that the talks could bring a breakthrough should not be shelved.
A June offer of economic aid and security guarantees in return for dropping the weapons programmes is still on the table, having been neither accepted nor rejected. The North's latest outburst might well be a prelude to serious horse-trading at the talks. Assuming the weapons programmes are real, the North has proved it has something to trade.
The thinking for many months has been that Mr Kim was biding his time, hoping for a Democrat on the other side of the US negotiating table after last November's presidential election. With George W. Bush sworn in for a new four-year term, diplomats saw a chance to get back to business.
However, the acknowledgment of the country's nuclear status does make an already complicated situation even more so. The challenge now is to continue steering North Korea back to talks while containing the declaration's likely regional security fallout.
Such an outright admission is the kind that could spark a North Asian nuclear weapons race. South Korea and Japan's governments, backed by public opinion, may feel the need to seek their own deterrent against attack from Pyongyang. The US, Russia and China, all nuclear powers bound by alliances in and around the peninsula, could be drawn in. Preventing a destabilising military escalation and solving the North Korean problem are increasingly likely to be two sides of the same coin.
What can the North hope to gain from the new posture? It could be hoping to extract even more concessions ahead of talks. The ultimate aim of an insecure Kim regime has always been a written, legally binding guarantee from the US that it would not invade. It has also long preferred bilateral talks over the six-nation format, but Mr Kim is probably aware that will never happen.
The pressure will be on for Beijing to use its influence over its neighbour and ally - China provides more than two-thirds of the North's food and fuel supplies, and is a major trading partner. Beijing will also be important to a package of credible threats, such as United Nations Security Council sanctions, if it does not co-operate. To a lesser extent, Russia, South Korea and Japan will be leaned on to use their leverage with Pyongyang.
Successfully ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions will require a well-crafted, enforceable disarmament programme. Flaws in the previous agreement allowed it to keep fuel enrichment projects which were adaptable for making warheads. Such loopholes must be closed this time around. As for North Korea's weapons admission, it should add to the urgency for getting the talks back on track.