N. Korea to permit inspections

January 06, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ending four months of tense confrontation, the United States announced yesterday that North Korea had agreed to take the first steps to ease international fears about its nuclear ambitions.

The agreement by North Korea to allow international inspectors back into seven nuclear sites prevents a total collapse of the inspection process and ends, for now, an escalating crisis that could have led the United States to seek United Nations sanctions against the isolated Communist regime.

But the deal may only delay an eventual showdown over the ultimate U.S. goal of getting North Korea to surrender whatever nuclear-weapon material -- or bombs -- it may have developed.

President Clinton declared last year that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, but the Central Intelligence Agency was reported recently to have concluded that there is an even chance the regime already has at least one.

The agreement came as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will conduct the inspections, disclosed that its measure of North Korea's nuclear capacities is already "damaged" by the lag between visits and that more than one inspection would be required to restore lost knowledge.

The deal, if carried out, will fulfill the minimum U.S. aim of resuming inspections at North Korea's seven declared nuclear facilities and getting talks started again between North and South Korea that could lead to a separate set of inspections.

"What we've gotten from the North is a commitment to the inspections of the seven sites necessary for the IAEA to say that the continuity of safeguards has been maintained," Lynn Davis, undersecretary of state for international security affairs, told reporters at the State Department.

The crisis developed in September when North Korea abruptly barred continued monitoring of its nuclear facilities.

Throughout the negotiations, the Clinton administration has continued the Bush administration's policy of incentives -- the promise of greater contacts, trade and perhaps aid -- to get North Korea to cooperate.

But some question whether that tactic has ever gotten the United States what it wants. "It didn't work for us, and it isn't working now," said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under President George Bush.

As part of the package, the United States is expected to reward North Korea by granting some of the demands of the isolated Communist nation. These would include a new set of high-level talks and the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, the latter to be announced by Seoul and Washington. The North Koreans have viewed the exercises as war rehearsals.

At the new talks, the United States will try to persuade North Korea to give credible evidence that it has abandoned its nuclear ambitions.

The talks will take place between North Korean officials and Robert Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

But the agreement falls short of meeting the atomic energy agency's demands to be allowed to check two undeclared sites suspected of storing nuclear waste -- to enable it to see if North Korea has lied in the past about the amount of weapon fuel it possesses.

In fact, the agreement basically restores a level of cooperation between North Korea and the agency that existed about a year ago.

The agreement leaves it up to North Korea and the atomic energy agency to work out the kinds of inspections that would be needed at the declared nuclear facilities.

This means more setbacks could be in store, since the North hasn't specifically committed itself to a scheme of regular inspections.

But Ms. Davis insisted that North Korea understands that maintaining what experts call a "continuity of safeguards" is a continuing process and that the United States would halt high-level talks if the North tried again to "nickel and dime" the atomic energy agency on inspections.

The immediate impasse developed in September when North Korea refused to let inspectors see all they wanted to check even inside the declared sites.

As a result of the delay in visits, agency spokesman David Kyd said that at least some of the cameras the inspectors had installed have probably run out of film and their batteries have probably died, cutting off one means of monitoring North Korea's nuclear program. But the inspectors also had installed seals to guard against secret transfers of nuclear material. The seals will be checked on the inspectors' next visit.

Had North Korea continued to balk, the United States would have been forced, as a matter of maintaining its own credibility, to seek United Nations sanctions against the Pyongyang regime. This would have been difficult, since it would have required overcoming the opposition of China, a North Korean ally whose relations with the United States are already strained.

Suspicions about North Korea's nuclear aspirations mounted early last year when the atomic energy agency demanded, and North Korea refused to permit, special inspections of the two suspected nuclear waste sites. When the agency pressed the issue, North Korea announced it would withdraw from the international Non-Proliferation Treaty and, therefore, wouldn't be subject to any inspections.

After a series of negotiations with the United States, the North agreed not to pull out of the NPT.

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