North Korea agrees to details of inspections at nuclear sites

February 16, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- North Korea, on the brink of a confrontation with the United Nations, ended weeks of delay yesterday and agreed to the details of international inspections of its seven declared nuclear sites.

The deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency followed a pattern of delay, tension and last-minute cooperation that has characterized North Korean behavior since the crisis over its nuclear-weapons program erupted early last year.

But the inspectors won't be allowed to explore two undeclared sites where the Communist regime is suspected of storing nuclear waste.

It was the IAEA's demand to see these facilities -- and North Korea's refusal -- that triggered a yearlong crisis that has heightened tension on the Korean peninsula.

For the moment, the deal removes the likelihood that the U.N. Security Council will punish Pyongyang, a move that North Korea had warned could bring "catastrophic consequences." The United States and the IAEA had set a deadline of next Monday for North Korea to agree to the inspections or face Security Council action.

The agreement also spares the United States the tough job of persuading China, a North Korean ally with a Security Council veto, to acquiesce in imposing sanctions.

But the agreement doesn't put to rest fears that North Korea already may have developed and hidden one or more nuclear devices, which it could someday use against South Korea or Japan.

After six weeks of haggling over terms, the IAEA announced yesterday in Vienna that North Korean authorities "accept the inspection activities which have been requested by IAEA in the seven declared nuclear facilities." Inspectors will leave shortly for a visit likely to last two weeks, officials said.

The inspections are designed to ensure that North Korea hasn't used the year since the last full look at the sites to divert nuclear material to its weapons program.

But the inspectors' task is made difficult by the fact that camera film and batteries installed to monitor the facilities by now have run out.

Inspection of the two undeclared sites, and overall North Korean adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, will be the subject of later negotiations between North Korean officials and Robert Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs.

U.S. officials had predicted yesterday's agreement weeks ago, when North Korea agreed in principle to inspections intended to make sure that the seven sites weren't used for nuclear diversion. That earlier agreement also followed prolonged negotiations.

But in the period that followed, North Korea balked at what it said was an excessive IAEA inspections program.

Facing this deadlock, the IAEA director-general, Hans Blix, was getting ready to declare at the agency's board meeting next Monday that he had given up on getting North Korea to cooperate and that the IAEA's ability to monitor North Korea's nuclear program had been damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

This declaration would have spurred the Security Council to punish North Korea, proceeding in phases toward a full trade embargo.

But the IAEA board could arrange to meet after it receives the inspectors' report and prod the Security Council to act if the report raises new suspicions.

North Korea also may have been influenced by a recent drop in saber-rattling out of Washington.

South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo said in Washington on Friday that Defense Secretary William J. Perry had agreed to hold off a final decision on deploying Patriot missiles in South Korea until after the IAEA board meeting.

Completion of the IAEA inspection would fulfill one U.S. requirement for resumption of high-level talks between North Korea and the United States that have been held out as an inducement. Mid-level U.S. officials met with North Koreans in New York yesterday in preparation for this step.

A second requirement is that North Korea start talks with the South that include discussion of making the peninsula nuclear ,, free. As an added inducement, the United States and South Korea are expected to suspend this year's joint Team Spirit military exercises, which North Korea calls a war rehearsal.

The United States has promised that the high-level talks will be "broad and thorough," dealing not only with nuclear issues but with bringing North Korea out of its isolation and rebuilding its shattered economy.

"There is a pattern to North Korean behavior," said Zalmay Khalilzad, a senior Pentagon official under President George Bush who is now a strategist for the influential RAND Corp. "They, I think, believe we do not want a crisis either and clearly know a conflict would be enormously damaging."

North Korea, he said, appears to believe that "if they give a little bit, we avoid stronger action."

Mr. Khalilzad said he suspects that North Korea's aim is to take the steps necessary to avoid sanctions while using the delay to turn whatever nuclear material it has already diverted into weapons.

If this is true, he said, "We will face a dilemma as to what to do in that scenario."

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