IT IS difficult for the North Koreans even to pretend that they have not completed at least one nuclear weapon. Defense Secretary William Perry recently indicated as much on national television and, shortly after taking office, CIA Director R. James Woolsey Jr. stated that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea probably had separated enough plutonium for at least one first-generation "device."
Diplomacy to dissuade the North from going nuclear lost its utility sometime in 1991 or 1992, to judge by the evidence gathered during the incomplete international inspections.
Sometime during the administration of former President Bush, North Korea crossed the line from having a nuclear-weapons program but not enough fissile material to build a bomb, to assembling its first device. It not only has enough plutonium for at least one weapon; it has probably built it.
While the Bush administration looked the other way, the door shut on the opportunity to deter North Korean proliferation. Now the Clinton administration must contain the North's nuclear ambitions.
The three goals should be: to ensure that the North never uses its nuclear arsenal, small though it may be; to forestall the construction of even more nuclear weapons, and to see the North's nuclear capability dismantled. A fourth aim, if North Korea does not respond rationally to these initiatives, is to prevent the outbreak of a second Korean War.
For the moment, there is no alternative to living with a nuclear North, while mobilizing world support to ensure that Kim Il Sung finds it difficult to add to his atomic stockpile and is provided inducements to dismantle it.
Many say that it is time to consider sanctions to force North Korea to accept full International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. But it is difficult to enact sanctions and harder still to enforce them without the enthusiastic participation of South Korea, China and Japan, the nations that should be the most concerned about an evolving nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula. Nonetheless, sanctions remain one of the few instruments of coercion left short of war. But they must be requested by Asian nations, not the United States alone.
A critical point is approaching that presents to the international community both an opportunity and a danger. The North has operated a 30-megawatt reactor for many years. Nuclear physics dictates that July would be the best time for the routine of extracting the reactor's load of uranium fuel rods and their plutonium.
Although Ashton Carter, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, has suggested that the shutdown could safely be postponed for roughly a year, it is in the interest of non-proliferation to see that the core is removed expeditiously and under safeguards; that is, in July, not indefinitely later.
Instead of setting dates for additional inspections of the reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, the U.N. Security Council should call on North Korea to replace the reactor core this summer, with the IAEA observing to ensure against diversion of the plutonium. The spent fuel rods should be removed from the country.
Since the North Koreans do not need to reprocess the uranium to support their existing and planned reactors, this represents no hardship to the country -- if it still desires a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, as it has repeatedly asserted. The plutonium has some potential value as a supplement to reactor fuel, and the government could be compensated generously for that resource, even if such payment were perceived as being a payoff for good behavior.
If, however, North Korea intends to expand its nuclear arsenal, as the evidence of the last IAEA inspection indicates, refusal of the Security Council order would be a clear signal. The world community would be justified in using some means of coercion to get North Korea to live up to its treaty obligations to become and remain a non-nuclear-armed state.
Peter Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, is the visiting senior fellow in arms control and verification at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.