A Case for Doing Something

February 11, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

Vienna. -- The next deadline in the nuclear dueling between Washington and Pyongyang is 10 days off, ready or not. February 21 is the date the experts must report to the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the state of affairs, as they discern it, in North Korea's nuclear establishment.

They appear to have no choice but to say they are unable to carry out their mandate to inspect North Korea's nuclear facilities, and that there is no good reason not to believe that the country is engaged in the clandestine manufacture of a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA governors will have no choice but to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. France, one of its permanent members, has already made it clear that it will push for harsh economic sanctions, a total blockade, to be imposed on North Korea. Britain, in all likelihood, will follow suit. China will hover between a veto and an abstention, torn between its concern over North Korea's actions and its historic support for North Korea, including fighting on its side in 1950 in the war against the South Korean and U.N. forces. Russia will follow the United States' lead.

Since the North Koreans have the reputation for never blinking until half a second to midnight, it is going to be an interesting ten days, at least for steely-nerved connoisseurs of nuclear poker.

The Americans are moving to send Patriot missiles to South Korea, and the word from the command of the U.S. forces in South Korea is that if war breaks out for a second time on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. and South Korea (and the old U.N. allies?) will, this time, seize Pyongyang. The U.S. Senate is urging the administration to prepare to return tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

On the North Korean side, there are all manner of threats, most of them more verbal than tangible. It does appear, however, that Pyongyang has been adding rocket launchers to forces deployed within striking distance of Seoul.

The worry in Vienna is that Washington will blink first. The danger, says the IAEA spokesman, Da- vid Kyd, is that ''the whole nonproliferation treaty is being put at risk to accommodate this maverick regime.''

There is a lot of truth in this. It's now a good year since news first leaked out that North Korea was probably up to no good. At one point, negotiations between North Korea and the United States appeared headed for compromise -- in return for U.S. diplomatic recognition, trade, aid with its civilian nuclear industry and the abandoning of joint American-South Korean military maneuvers in South Korea, Pyong yang would remain in the discipline of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and allow the resumption of regular inspections of the IAEA.

But North Korean balked over the last point. It wants only a minimum of inspections to insure what it calls ''continuity.'' The IAEA wants to return to a normal and routine inspection program to insure that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials for warhead manufacture.

Some American critics argue that the IAEA is being too specific in its demands. But the IAEA knows from bitter experience that if it doesn't get Pyongyang to agree in writing beforehand exactly what its inspectors will be allowed to do, then they won't be allowed to do much.

The clock is ticking so fast. After the governors' meeting in 10 days the next deadline is in July, when the refueling of North Korea's main reactor becomes necessary.

If the inspectors are not there to monitor, the outside world will never learn whether materials are being diverted for a bomb. If Washington decides to blink and compromise at the governors' meeting, not much time will remain to resolve the issue.

If North Korea gets away with defying the nonproliferation regime, we can start to write off the treaty, which has successfully blocked the spread of nuclear weapons until now.

For we can be sure of one thing: Other nations will be equally eager to toss aside their solemn international legal commitments. This is the awful price of temporizing.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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