Security Council action looms as North Korea again rebuffs nuclear inspections

May 29, 1994|By New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- The Clinton administration's latest plan to stop North Korea's nuclear program appeared on the verge of collapse yesterday as the North declared it would "never allow" outsiders to derail its nuclear plans, and international inspectors left the Communist country saying that their efforts had failed.

With the inspections rebuffed, the United Nations Security Council was considering a weekend meeting to issue another warning to the North.

But it is unclear whether China, which has veto power, would back economic sanctions it has consistently opposed.

A call for sanctions would be a major reversal for the State Department, which just two weeks ago began a new effort to deal with the North by dropping several preconditions for talks.

The rebuff on inspections came amid reports that North Korea appeared to be preparing to test a new medium-range missile over the Sea of Japan.

In the past, the CIA has said that the North's extensive missile program is part of an effort to prove that its nuclear arsenal could strike all the major cities in Japan and South Korea. The last test a year ago prompted considerable alarm here after the unarmed missile landed near Japan's west coast.

The latest events suggest that Clinton administration officials may have been too optimistic last week when they expressed confidence that a new approach to North Korea -- including an offer of high-level talks about diplomatic and economic links that the North has long sought -- could break a yearlong impasse over keeping the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

"The fact of the matter is that we don't really understand what they are doing," said a U.S. official based in Asia who follows the situation closely. "They may be toying with us, or they may have suddenly decided that they have to save the nuclear program at all cost."

While the talks with North Korea over the past year and a half have often seemed an endless cycle of optimistic predictions followed by warnings of impending confrontation, they have never before seemed to carry so much urgency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which dispatched an inspection team to observe the removal of fuel rods from its main reactor at Yongbyon, says that the North is within days of destroying evidence of how much nuclear fuel has been diverted to its weapons program.

Washington has said that, if the evidence is destroyed, it would have no choice but to seek sanctions, a measure Pyongyang has said it would consider an act of war.

On Friday, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher described Washington's effort to negotiate with North Korea, along with the renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status this week, as part of a strategy to press U.S. interests throughout Asia without isolating important countries.

But from the start, many U.S. officials have viewed the diplomatic engagement of the North as an exercise in self-deception that ignored evidence that Pyongyang would push ahead with its nuclear program.

That argument has gained credence as the North moves forward on replacing more than 8,000 fuel rods, a process that ultimately could produce enough fuel for four or five nuclear weapons.

Fuel from the old rods can be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium, and the North has expended much of its scarce hard currency in recent years building a reprocessing center near the reactor.

The atomic energy agency has been insisting that the North comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and permit the agency to track the fuel rods.

The IAEA, a U.N. agency, also wants to take samples from selected rods, which would reveal how much plutonium, if any, was extracted during the last reloading in 1989, when inspectors were barred.

So far the North has allowed the agency to observe part of the reloading from a distance, but has refused to allow the taking of samples, or "segregation" of about 300 specific rods for future tests.

Yesterday, the agency announced that officials sent to Pyongyang to negotiate an inspection had left after the North rejected all its proposals.

The officials wanted to select, segregate and secure fuel rods for later measurements, so as to be able to verify the history of the reactor core, the IAEA said.

Referring to the agency's demand to mark and sample the rods, North Korea said yesterday, "We can never allow this under the present condition, no matter what others say and what a counteraction they may take," an apparent reference to sanctions.

It said that stopping the refueling, as the agency has demanded, would result in "colossal economic losses and formidable danger."

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