Seven-Ninths of an Agreement

January 09, 1994

In dealing with a country as paranoid and militarily powerful as North Korea, the United States has to be careful not to goad it into an attack on South Korea, with the incalculable damage (and potential U.S. casualties) that would cause. Yet Washington cannot allow the Pyongyang regime to capitalize on its irrationality by defying international rules to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

After months of delicate negotiations, North Korea has in effect put aside its threat to be the first nation to withdraw from the

all-important Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has agreed to permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to resume surveillance of its seven declared nuclear facilities. It has also expressed a willingness to renew negotiations with South Korea on efforts to denuclearize the peninsula they share.

What North Korea still spurns -- and this remains unacceptable -- is IAEA inspection of two unacknowledged nuclear waste dumps whose tailings should reveal if Pyongyang has diverted sufficient atomic fuel to make nuclear bombs. The CIA suspects two such weapons exist.

Yet seven-ninths of an agreement is better than none. It is a signal for more diplomacy, especially of the face-saving kind so essential to rogue regimes. Washington can offer U.S. economic ties and even diplomatic relations as a potential reward for good behavior. Down the road the international community can settle for nothing less than complete on-demand IAEA inspections, and if it takes the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises to bring Pyongyang to this point, that is a carrot ready and waiting.

The alternative stick, which should remain available, would be global economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council. But China, the country most influential in Pyongyang, opposes such a move at this time, as do Japan and, significantly, South Korea.

The Clinton administration has kept its head in handling this issue, defying some hardliners at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. But the danger is not over and this is no time to relax. The likes of Iran and Iraq would still like to go nuclear, and utmost caution is required to avoid precedents they would be tempted to follow. There is no higher foreign policy goal for this or any other civilized nation than a halt to the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

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