WASHINGTON – An international conference on strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search) to keep weapons out of the hands of rogue nations and terrorists is unlikely to stem North Korea's ambitions, forcing the United States to take a different approach to Pyongyang.
As members of the United Nations conference met to discuss two of the three nations President Bush identified in 2002 as part of the "axis of evil" — Iran and North Korea — in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) wagered that her own country's resources were an effective deterrent to any weapons North Korea may be able to cook up.
"The U.S. maintains significant — I want to underline significant — deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia Pacific region. So I don't think there should be any doubt about our ability to deter whatever the North Koreans are up to. But that does not mean that it is not a serious problem and that the North Koreans shouldn't come back to the six-party talks, because all of their neighbors consider this to be a problem," Rice said Monday during a press conference with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.
A self-proclaimed nuclear power, North Korea (search) on Sunday fired a non-nuclear short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, a move the Bush administration described as a problem but not a threat. Pyongyang, however, said that it would continue to boycott six-party talks aimed at getting the country to abandon its nuclear weapons as long as President Bush, whom North Korea's foreign minister called a "hooligan," is in the White House.
In 2003, North Korea became the only nation ever to withdraw from the United Nations' 35-year- old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty currently is undergoing its five-year review, the first since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and subsequent pronouncements by Bush that North Korea is a top enemy to the United States. Since that time, U.S. officials have said they believe North Korea may have developed as many as six nuclear bombs.
At the United Nations, diplomats from more than 180 countries began a month-long conference on the future of the treaty, with many saying its strength and credibility are in doubt in light of ongoing violations by North Korea and Iran.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) on Monday sided with the United States on two key criticisms of the treaty. He agreed that it is outdated, and he said that while peaceful nations may develop nuclear energy, they should be prohibited from enriching uranium for nuclear fuel because that fuel is a key step in developing the bomb.
"States that wish to exercise their undoubted right to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes must not insist that they can only do so by developing capacities that might be used to create nuclear weapons," he said.
The State Department's assistant secretary for arms control Stephen Rademacher prodded fellow diplomats to toughen up the treaty, accusing both North Korea and Iran of using peaceful energy production as a disguise for their weapons development.
"Indeed, Mr. President, some continue to use the pretext of a peaceful nuclear program to pursue the goal of developing nuclear weapons. We must confront this challenge in order to ensure that the treaty remains relevant," Rademacher said.
Like North Korea, Iran shows no signs of listening to the international community. Despite months of negotiations with members of the European Union to persuade Iran not to make its own nuclear fuel, Tehran announced this weekend that it would disregard international will and start enriching uranium soon.
Bush has repeatedly expressed hope that the six-party talks with North Korea and separately the European negotiations with Iran would end the nuclear standoffs with those two countries. But, he said, should that type of diplomacy fail, he is prepared to go to the United Nations seeking sanctions against those nations.
White House aides said their goal right now is to get the Nonproliferation Treaty toughened up enough to paint those two countries into deeper corners of isolation.
"The international community is speaking very clearly to both nations and saying, you're only going to further isolate yourself if you take steps that run contrary to what the international community expects. And you will realize better relations if you pursue a course like Libya, and abandon your nuclear weapons programs," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But outside analysts say the entire approach to North Korea is going to have to shift.
"When you heard the secretary of state speak about deterrence, what she is saying is that the game of getting this program stopped is over. Deterrence means they're going to have it and we're going to stop them from using it, but there is no way of stopping the North Koreans from having them and there is no way they are going to give them up," said FOX News contributor Charles Krauthammer.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Carl Cameron.