MICHELE NORRIS, host:

North Korea, Iran, the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear technology and weapons has taken a couple of serious blows recently. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, the news on nuclear proliferation has been almost all bad. Take India and Pakistan, for example. Now, experts both in and out of government are questioning whether it's possible to keep nuclear weapons in the hands of just a few big powers. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: Perhaps no organization knows more about the spread of nuclear weapons than the International Atomic Energy Agency. It and its director, Mohamed ElBaradei, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for their work in helping to help to stem nuclear proliferation. This week at an international symposium in Vienna, ElBaradei sounded frustrated and almost despairing about the effect of his work globally.

Dr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (Director, International Atomic Energy Agency): It's becoming fashionable for countries to try to look in to possibilities of shielding themselves, protecting themselves through nuclear weapons.

SHUSTER: During the Cold War, through a complex set of arms-control treaties with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the center, the effort to limit nuclear weapons largely succeeded. It's been a different story over the past decade, and some in the Bush administration concluded nuclear proliferation is inevitable, and the United States ought to focus on actions to contain nations after they acquire the bomb rather than prevent them from acquiring it in the first place.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that's not the policy of the Bush administration.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State): The non-proliferation regime is under strain, but it is not broken. And the United States is working to preserve and renew this vital pillar of international security.

SHUSTER: The reasons that nations go nuclear are complex. Most make that choice when they perceive their security threatened, especially when they fear their neighbors are pursuing nuclear weapons of their own. But the role of the United States has been crucial, especially on North Korea, say many experts. President Bush's axis of evil speech, the obvious desire of some in the administration to end the North Korean regime, the invasion of Iraq and the weakness of American diplomacy all contributed to the current crisis, says Scott Sagan, director for the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

Professor SCOTT SAGAN (Political Science, Stanford University; Director, Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University): Yes, I do believe it was the policies of the Bush administration that encouraged the North Koreans - inadvertently, but encouraged the North Koreans to acquire this particular set of nuclear weapons.

SHUSTER: The irony is that the spread of nuclear weapons can occur not only because of the actions of those who want them, but the actions of those that want to prevent their spread as well. Mitchell Reiss - a former head of policy planning at the State Department during the first Bush term, now vice provost at the College of William and Mary - points out that even the diplomatic efforts of the U.S. may have encouraged North Korea to test last week.

Dr. MITCHELL REISS (Former Head of Policy Planning, State Department; Vice Provost, College of William and Mary): The lack of an incentive to temper their nuclear weapons ambitions, combined with a lack of disincentives that could be imposed upon them should they test may have led to what we saw happen on October 9th.

SHUSTER: So the question has emerged, is this a fatal blow to the effort to contain the spread of nuclear weapons? Scott Sagan says not quite.

Prof. SAGAN: It has been a major blow. Whether it is fatal or not depends on what happens next. It seems to me that Iran is the test case.

SHUSTER: The North Korean crises has forced even greater scrutiny of Iran and how the U.S. and other nations will deal with it. Secretary of State Rice made that point yesterday.

Secretary RICE: The greatest challenge to the non-proliferation regime comes from countries that violate their pledges to respect the non-proliferation treaty. The North Korean regime is one such case, but also so is Iran. The Iranian government is watching, and it can now see that the international community will respond to threats from nuclear proliferation.

SHUSTER: That might not the conclusion the leaders of Iran draw from this crises. Some experts say if North Korea does not pay a significant price for its nuclear test, that will only encourage Iran to pursue a nuclear capability. Timing is also a key, says Stanford's Scott Sagan.

Prof. SAGAN: The time to get a state to reverse course is by offering the right kinds of incentives and the right kinds of potential punishment down the road when they're at the beginning stages, when they haven't gone so far and made the investments, and when they haven't already been successful in testing the weapon.

SHUSTER: That was the case 12 years ago, when the Clinton administration negotiated a freeze on plutonium production in North Korea. At that point, North Korea's nuclear program was contained, and there was no nuclear test. But after the Bush administration took office, both countries abandoned that agreement. Experts say there is little likelihood North Korea can be persuaded or forced to give up its nuclear weapons now. But if Scott Sagan is right about how timing can affect the decisions of those seeking the bomb, Iran could still be constrained through pressures and diplomacy, perhaps the kind of agreement that contained North Korea's nuclear efforts for nearly a decade. Much responsibility remains in the hands of the U.S., says Mitchell Reiss.

Dr. REISS: The key weakness right now of the non-proliferation regime is enforcing compliance with international laws and norms. North Korea has violated those, so has Iran. To date, they've paid little if any price. It's really up to us to make sure that they do pay a penalty, or else we will be certainly be living in a more dangerous world in the years to come.

SHUSTER: North Korea's nuclear tests may not have been a fatal blow to nuclear non-proliferation. The next case could. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

SIEGEL: One last diplomatic note now, one which has nothing to do with things nuclear. The U.S. government, specifically the board on geographic names, is changing the spelling of the capital of Ukraine. It has been Kiev, K-I-E-V. It will now be spelled K-Y-I-V on maps and documents and all other things governmental. And the pronunciation, we're told by the State Department, is Kyiv. The decision was made on October 3rd and has already been adopted across Washington. Word from the Ukrainian embassy in Washington is that the U.S. has finally gotten it right.

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