Already at the center of the world debate over war in Iraq, the U.N. Security Council is about to have another global flashpoint to deal with: the standoff over North's Korea's nuclear weapons development.
The question now is whether the council can do anything about it.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, meets on Wednesday and is widely expected to refer the nuclear dispute to the council, setting in motion a process that could lead to sanctions against the communist regime in Pyongyang.
But a host of factors could complicate consideration of sanctions. Russian and Chinese support is questionable, South Korea is pushing for more time to engage the North, and Pyongyang has said it would consider sanctions "a declaration of war."
"Unless you have a process pre-wired, a consensus on what the Security Council would do ... then it's possible that the referral in and of itself would be ineffective," said Scott Snyder, Asia Foundation representative in South Korea. "There is not a consensus in favor of sanctions."
The move to the Security Council is part of a U.S. push to involve other countries in the dispute, which North Korea has cast as exclusively between Pyongyang and Washington. Washington, however, has not said specifically that it would seek sanctions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has urged China, North Korea's main ally, to take a larger role in convincing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear plans. On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Thomas Hubbard, reiterated the U.S. preference for a multilateral approach.
"The Board of Governors of the IAEA ... will meet soon, and we expect it to relay its concerns about North Korea to the United Nations Security Council," Hubbard said at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. "The world community must continue to insist, clearly and firmly, that North Korea must not disregard its international obligations."
Seoul has already done what it could to delay IAEA referral to the Security Council. The Vienna-based nuclear agency considered meeting on Feb. 3, but moved the meeting to Wednesday after South Korea pleaded for more time for talks with the North.
But South Korea relented after the North refused to commit to specific steps to defuse the standoff during talks in Seoul in January, and Southern envoys failed to win a widely expected meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in subsequent talks in Pyongyang.
A top South Korean Foreign Ministry official, Chun Young-woo, conceded on Monday that it was "almost certain" the North Korean dispute would be referred to the Security Council.
The South has not come out specifically against U.N. sanctions, but Seoul's approach has been constant: engagement and negotiation - not the threat of punishment - is the way to clinch an agreement with the North.
South Korea has also attempted to calm fears of the danger represented by North Korea's nuclear development. On Monday, Prime Minister Kim Suk-soo said there was no proof Pyongyang already has a nuclear bomb as U.S. officials have asserted.
North Korea has never confirmed nor denied having nuclear arms, but has said it has the right to develop atomic weapons.
While South Korea is not a member of the Security Council, two veto-holding members - Russia and China - have expressed strong skepticism about shifting the Korean dispute to an international forum.
China on Tuesday brushed off Powell's suggestion of greater involvement by Beijing, continuing its support of Pyongyang's position: that only direct U.S.-North Korea talks can resolve the dispute.
"We believe the two parties are best able to solve the issue peacefully," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said at a regular news briefing. "Although it touches upon regional security and nuclear proliferation, the key to resolving this issue is the resumption of dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea."
Another factor is how North Korea may react to the imposition of sanctions. Pyongyang has said it would consider such a move "a declaration of war."
North Korea has also said it would ignore the meeting at the IAEA, which it accuses of being a pawn of the United States. Since tensions began rising in October, Pyongyang has expelled IAEA monitors and quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the IAEA enforces.
Chung Jin-wie, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that while much of North Korea's talk of war is bluster, a move to punish the impoverished country with sanctions could simply strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Pyongyang - making a settlement even more difficult to attain.
"Somebody has to push North Korea, no doubt about it," he said. "At the same time, the U.N. Security Council could make it worse."
The crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs began in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Washington and its allies then suspended oil shipments, and North Korea responded by taking steps to reactivate nuclear facilities frozen under a 1994 energy deal with the United States.
The North Korea standoff, coming as the Bush administration plans a possible war against Iraq, exposed the White House to charges of a double standard.
Recently, CBS News reported that the Pentagon had put several bombers on alert to head to the region to provide an option for striking North Korea's nuclear facilities, if necessary. But the U.S. never threatened military action against North Korea, and President Bush even said he had "no intention" of invading the country.
Also on Tuesday, a U.S. official said the United States is delaying its 2003 food pledges for North Korea amid "credible" reports that food is being diverted to the North's soldiers and political elite.
Tony Hall, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies, said he expected the United States would eventually deliver food to the U.N. World Food Program for distribution this year. But he said the United States was waiting for the agency to obtain further assurances it can get food to the people it is intended for.
"We are going to continue to be there because we don't use food as a weapon," Hall told reporters. "But we are going to be darn sure that if we tell you where the food is supposed to be and you give it to someone else, then we're going to wait, and we're going to be darn sure that our food is getting through to the right people."
Washington has been the largest donor to the agency's North Korea projects, providing about $61 million worth of aid, or 172,700 tons, last year. The agency has appealed for $201 million for North Korea for 2003. Less than $15 million has been pledged - from the European Union and Italy.
The United States has long maintained it keeps its political and food-aid relationships with North Korea separate.
The Rome-based agency warned Monday that food shortfalls were affecting masses of hungry people in the eastern half of North Korea for the first time, and the prospect of more supplies in the near future remained bleak.
An agency spokesman in Beijing, Gerald Bourke, said the United States had no food aid scheduled for this year - an assessment confirmed by Hall's office.
"This year, two months into 2003, we haven't pledged anything," a U.S. official in Rome said. "It's still just a question of timing. We will give, we just don't know when. My understanding is that those discussions are going on in Washington."
Hall said negotiations were under way to reach agreement on better monitoring for food once it reaches North Korea.
The World Food Program monitors distribution of its food. For years there has been concern that food hasn't gotten to the people who need it most and that it has been diverted, but Hall said the latest reports of diversion were credible and new.
Hall said agency officials "try to follow the food but what we're hearing is they will take the food out, and they will actually see the food being given to the people. The food program leaves, and (government officials) grab the food and take it from them (the recipients)."
The diplomat said that "we're hearing reports that to me are starting to sound very credible that food is not getting to people as it should, and is being taken away from people and being diverted to the military and to the elite, which is something new."