NORTH Korea's reported nuclear explosion is unquestionably critical to Northeast Asia and worldwide efforts to restrain nuclear proliferation. Moreover, simply because it is North Korea, most of the rest of the world is understandably having a bad case of the jitters.
The test explosion, which North Korea had warned a week before that it intended to carry out, puts it on the threshold of the group of countries that possess nuclear arms.
These include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of which have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as has North Korea.
Also possessing nuclear arms are India, Israel, and Pakistan, none of which have signed the NPT. Signators of the treaty permit inspections of their nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency; non-signators don't.
The risk now is that North Korea's neighbors, specifically Japan and South Korea, may feel obliged to proceed with their own nuclear weapons programs.
No one doubts for a minute that Japan, with the world's second largest economy and highly sophisticated technology, and South Korea, in tenth place with comparable skills, could quickly move to produce nuclear weapons. Both have signed the NPT, and Japan's prime minister this week reiterated that his country has no intention of seeking atomic weapons.
The question for the United States is, could it have prevented the North Koreans from proceeding with a nuclear weapons program?
The answer is probably yes. The latest U.S. approach to the problem was to engage North Korea in six-power talks, along with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. That made sense - dealing with a regional problem with the region's powers.
But it didn't work.
North Korea continued to insist on direct, bilateral talks with the United States as well. It had several reasons for that: President Bush's inclusion of North Korea in the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq; continuing threats against North Korea made by senior administration officials; and the U.S. attack on Iraq that brought about the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime.
As a result, Pyongyang wanted a firm pledge from the United States that it did not plan a comparable fate for the Kim Jong Il regime.
Six-power talks on the nuclear program were fine, but how was the North to know that once it agreed to that, the United States wouldn't raise the ante by forcing its government to step down, particularly with 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea?
For security against that, North Korea wanted high-level talks followed by joint communiques and the like. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration continued to refuse and, in the meantime, told North Korea it had to give up its nuclear option first.
Then came Monday's test. The United States is now pursuing economic and other sanctions against North Korea within the United Nations Security Council. If they are passed, China and Russia will make sure their effect is relatively harmless to North Korea. However, further isolation of an already paranoid North Korean regime serves no purpose.
What the United States should have done when North Korea threatened its test was to announce a willingness to dispatch Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or an equally credible representative, to Pyongyang to talk. Countries such as North Korea, Iran, and, before the invasion, Iraq, should not have to "deserve" to talk with senior U.S. officials.
Diplomatic talks are the classic and still best way that leadership can head off undesirable events. And a nuclear test by North Korea certainly qualifies as an undesirable event.