WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, reacting to signs that North Korea might be retreating from confrontation yesterday, said that the United States would reopen talks if Pyongyang was prepared to "freeze" its nuclear program and accept international safeguards.
"It all depends on the facts," said a cautious Mr. Clinton.
The signs of possible compromise came when former President Jimmy Carter met privately in Pyongyang with President Kim Il Sung. The North Korean leader, according to Mr. Carter, backed down from a threat to expel two International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors monitoring the reactor at Yongbyon. The IAEA monitors compliance with the U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"When I arrived here, the North Koreans told me that they were going to expel the inspectors within two days, but they have reversed that point so long as good-faith efforts are being made jointly between the United States and North Korea to resolve the entire nuclear problem," Mr. Carter said in an interview with CNN, the only media organization allowed to accompany him to the North Korean capital.
The inspectors' continued presence at the reactor was jeopardized by North Korea's withdrawal this week from the IAEA, a move that heightened tensions and pushed the Clinton administration to ask the United Nations to impose sanctions against North Korea.
After hours of top-level meetings at the White House and phone calls to Mr. Carter in Pyongyang, the administration's reaction was one of skepticism tinged with hope. Administration officials were aware of North Korea's record of duplicity and diplomatic cunning but were anxious not to ignore a possible solution to what has become the administration's major foreign policy challenge.
The White House had said that it would welcome any diplomatic helpfrom Mr. Carter but stressed that he was making a private visit to North Korea and was not carrying any message from Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Clinton said the push for sanctions would continue until North Korea's intentions could be established.
"There is a great deal at stake," the president said. "We are pursuing our interests with resolve and steadiness. We are hopeful that this development today will be positive, and we are awaiting further evidence. It depends on what the Koreans meant by what they actually said today."
Asked if the North Koreans might be playing for time to weaken the U.S. drive for sanctions, Mr. Clinton replied: "We'll just have to see. It depends on what the Koreans actually meant by what they said today.
"If it is a different position on which we can honorably resume negotiations, knowing in fact that there will be no development of the nuclear program while we are having discussions, then it is not an inappropriate delay. Then it is a genuine effort to resolve disputes which could lead to a safer world at a much lower cost. It simply depends on what their intentions and actions are. Will it take the steam out of sanctions? Not if there is nothing new here."
Mr. Clinton said his Korean policy was driven by the
administration's "unshakable" commitment to South Korea, the "vital importance" of the safety of the 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea, the national interest in preserving stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the "compelling interest" of preventing thespread of nuclear weapons.
The United States, he said, had made "serious and extensive efforts" to try to get North Korea to comply with its nuclear nonproliferation obligations, and he added: "If today's developments mean that North Korea is genuinely and verifiably prepared to freeze its nuclear program while talks go on, and we hope that is the case, then we would be willing to resume high-level talks."
According to Robert L. Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, who spoke to Mr. Carter, the North Korean leader offered to settle the crisis by:
* Allowing the IAEA inspectors and their monitoring equipment to remain at the Yongbyon reactor.
* Replacing the gas graphite nuclear fuel process, which yields weapons-grade plutonium, with a light-water reactor which is less useful for weapons development.
* Returning to full compliance with the U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea signed in 1985, agreeing not to acquire or manufacture nuclear weapons.
"That could be a constructive step if it means North Korea is also committed to freezing the major elements of its nuclear program while new talks took place," Mr. Gallucci said.
Talks, he said, would depend on the North Koreans' not refueling the Yongbyon reactor, from which they extracted spent rods in May and June, and on not reprocessing plutonium from the rods held in a storage pond under surveillance of the IAEA inspectors. The rods are estimated to contain enough plutonium for four or five bombs.