Nuclear Stall

January 09, 1994|By MARK MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ever since 1985, when the then-Soviet Union pressured it into joining a treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, North Korea has stalled world efforts to get to the bottom of its nuclear program.

The Communist regime waited for seven years before declaring its nuclear facilities and permitting inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear-weapons watchdog. When it was suspected of cheating these disclosures, it stalled again to keep the agency from probing further, at one point announcing that it would drop out of the treaty. Even last week, North Korea continued to keep the snoops at bay. Under an agreement hailed as good news by the U.S. State Department, North Korea will reopen its "declared" sites for inspection. But it won't allow inspectors into two buildings where evidence of a nuclear weapons program are suspected of being hidden.

By now, North Korea may well have progressed from being a potential to an actual nuclear threat. The Central Intelligence Agency thinks there's an even chance it has built one or two bombs. It also is developing a new Scud missile that could send these as far as Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea has shown deft diplomatic footwork for a nation derided as an isolated, Stalinist basket case, managing to extract concessions for every small step toward nuclear cooperation. As part of a package deal agreed to last week, it will get a third round of high-level talks with the United States and cancellation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

The agreement could, in fact, be just a prescription for more stalling. It's now up to the IAEA to negotiate inspection terms with North Korea and gain assurance that its inspectors will be able to make repeated visits. And it will be up to U.S. diplomats, in further talks with North Korea, to push for the kind of cooperation that could ease the world's fears.

That's why a number of the administration's critics, and even some voices within the government, have urged a broader, long-term plan of action that enlists China, Japan, South Korea and other nations in efforts to squeeze North Korea. They acknowledge that this could force the administration to back away from pressuring China on human rights.

"We need a strategy for the next year or 18 months," says Douglas Paal, a National Security Council official in President George Bush's administration, who suggests such steps as frequent military exercises in South Korea, which could force North Korea to stage counter-moves and thus use up scarce fuel supplies, and persuading China to diminish oil exports.

Almost from the start of this drawn-out crisis, the United States and North Korea's neighbors have hoped that a combination of incentives and threats would persuade North Korea to cooperate.

There have been more carrots than sticks. Believing that North Korea needed to be persuaded about American good faith, the United States was the first to ease up on the nuclear threat, removing all tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991.

Early the next year, the Bush administration canceled Team Spirit joint military exercises with South Korea and made what may have been the highest-level contacts since before the Korean War ended, with the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, Arnold Kanter, leading the U.S. delegation.

The point of the meeting was to explain to North Korea that it had reached a crossroads, Mr. Kanter recalled last week: It could rejoin the world community and join the economic miracle transforming Asia, or it could suffer increasing isolation.

Bolstering the U.S. position was the collapse of the North's one-time ally, the Soviet Union, and an increasing distance between North Korea and its only other major friend, China.

This tack seemed to work for awhile. In late 1991, North Korea and South Korea signed a denuclearization agreement intended to pave the way for inspections of each other's nuclear sites, and in the spring of 1992 the North agreed to international inspections.

For a brief period, it looked as though the north's aging dictator, Kim Il Sung, had gotten the message that his country could enter the post-Cold War world only if it gave up its nuclear ambitions. But it has become increasingly clear that to North Korea thought it could have both.

The problems started when North Korea was called upon to carry out what it had signed.

By the time it began seriously investigating North Korea's nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency was a changed institution. Embarrassed to discover how much of Iraq's nuclear-weapons efforts it had missed, the agency adopted a tougher posture. Before it had been content to examine only those sites that were declared to be nuclear facilities; now the agency felt compelled to follow where its suspicions led.

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