WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials suspect North Korea will continue to "stonewall" on bringing its nuclear program under international safeguards despite increased north-south cooperation on other issues.
North and South Korea signed a non-aggression pact yesterday that was seen as a major step toward eventual unification. The two sides also agreed to meet Dec. 21 to study the goal of making the peninsula nuclear-free.
But early this morning, the accord appeared in danger of foundering over the issue of nuclear weapons, the Associated Press reported from Seoul, South Korea.
South Korea reiterated its demand that North Korea abandon nuclear arms development and immediately open itself to international inspections, the AP reported. And the South Korean national news agency, quoting government sources, said the agreement would not be ratified until the nuclear weapons program is halted.
Officially, the United States welcomed the non-aggression pact as "an important step toward reducing tension and the risk of war associated with the 40-year division of the Korean peninsula," according to a State Department spokesman.
But the spokesman said the pact does "not in the least" absolve North Korea of its responsibility to sign and implement a nuclear safeguards agreement.
Privately, officials suspect it may ease North Korea's isolation while doing nothing to curb its nuclear ambitions. One said that even South Korea may view the nuclear issue as less important than moving toward unification.
"I'm worried that the north will suck the south into progress in some areas and stonewall in the nuclear area," a second official said.
This would fit North Korea's pattern, analysts say.
"They have a pattern of stringing along the world in a bid to gain time," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
North Korea became a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 and should have reached a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency 18 months later, according to Daniel Horner, acting director of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute. The IAEA inspects nuclear programs to ensure they are peaceful.
But North Korea still has not permitted inspection of its nuclear facilities. There is talk within the U.S. government of putting the issue before the U.N. Security Council.
North Korea has said it would sign the nuclear safeguard accord once the United States began withdrawing nuclear weapons. It also has sought inspection of all nuclear facilities on the peninsula and negotiations with both South Korea and the United States on the issue.
The United States has rejected any North Korean conditions for safeguards, but in fact it has gone a long way toward fulfilling them.
Officials and analysts say North Korea could be making bombs in two years.