North Korea Bites the Carrot

February 18, 1994

Did North Korea blink, or did it merely wink? Although Pyongyang's acceptance of international inspections at its seven declared nuclear facilities comes as a profound relief, the crisis is not over. Until the Stalinist state accepts inspections at still-secret sites where there may be evidence it has made one or more nuclear weapons, there will be a perception that the genie is out of the bottle in one of the world's most explosive hot spots.

President Clinton had it right last year when he declared the United States will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. Containment of the present situation is no substitute for outright prohibition of nuclear weapons. While the United States may tolerate a nuclear China or a nuclear Russia, big powers both, it cannot tolerate the precedent of having nuclear weapons spread to a small nation like North Korea. For therein lies the danger of proliferation anywhere or everywhere.

So long as the United States makes this the ultimate condition for diplomatic recognition and normal economic ties with North Korea, it should pursue its efforts to diffuse tensions on the Korean peninsula. When talks resume next week, American diplomats should be willing to call off "Team Spirit" joint military exercises with South Korea, scheduled for late March. The elimination of this provocation could give North Korea a face-saving opening to begin meeting its full obligations as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

That means no -- repeat no -- nuclear weapons. It means acceptance of unlimited surprise inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency at any suspect nuclear sites. And in the spirit of the NPT, it should mean resumption of talks with South Korea on the permanent denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The Clinton administration's pursuit of a carrot-and-stick diplomacy toward North Korea seems to be paying off. Given a choice of a breakout from economic isolation or United Nations sanctions that would make its plight even worse, the Pyongyang government decided to cooperate rather than defy the IAEA just six days before a Feb. 21 deadline. This is a beginning, not an end.

All nations in northeast Asia are parties to this drama. South Korea's fears of a devastating war outweigh its desire for reunification. Japan could not stand idle if North Korea were to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting its territory. And a nuclear-armed Japan would be China's worst nightmare. Ditto for Russia.

Consequently, the United States has natural allies in its quest to prevent North Korea's emergence as a nuclear power. So far the administration has wisely coordinated its efforts on a regional basis. But real security cannot be achieved by halfway measures -- by the existence of a North Korea that maybe, just maybe, has a bomb that can obliterate Seoul. North Korea has to be made to realize its true interests lie in unequivocal renunciation of nuclear weapons, and nothing less.

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