N. Korea to freeze nuclear program, talk with U.S.

June 23, 1994|By Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon | Mark Matthews and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton announced yesterday that North Korea had agreed to "freeze" the major elements of its nuclear program, clearing the way for high-level negotiations with the United States starting early next month in Geneva.

In a letter received at the White House yesterday, North Korea confirmed the pledges relayed by former President Jimmy Carter after his meetings last week with the North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung.

The prospect of negotiations cools a crisis that some, including Mr. Carter, had feared could lead to a new war on the Korean Peninsula with tens of thousands of casualties. It also revives hopes that in exchange for aid, trade and world acceptance, North Korea ultimately might abandon its drive to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

But the diplomatic progress still keeps in place North Korea's capacity to expand its nuclear weapon supply if negotiations turn sour and Pyongyang decides to break free from all international controls. U.S. officials say the North may already have one or two bombs.

Earlier yesterday, the isolated Communist regime took another step away from confrontation by agreeing to preparatory talks for the first North-South summit since the peninsula was divided in 1945. Officials from North and South will meet June 28 to discuss the summit.

"These developments mark not a solution to the problem, but they do mark a new opportunity to find a solution," Mr. Clinton said at a White House news conference yesterday.

The president said that while negotiations are under way, the United States would stop trying to win support at the United Nations for sanctions intended to pressure North Korea into cooperating with international nuclear inspectors.

Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Carter, whose highly publicized visit had produced some mixed signals and drew criticism inside and outside the administration for his having appeared to interfere with the administration's attempt to put global pressure on North Korea. The president said that Mr. Carter had made "a very persuasive case."

He also claimed vindication of his own policy on North Korea, which critics have called weak. "We also always kept the door open," Mr. Clinton said. "I always said I did not seek a confrontation. I sought to give North Korea a way to become a part of the international community."

U.S. officials, briefing reporters at the White House, gave no estimate of how long the talks may last and said that they would cover a range of problems. From the U.S. side, these problems include persuading North Korea to reveal to inspectors' satisfaction how far its nuclear program already has gone and to agree to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

A top national security official said the North Koreans indicated an interest in two primary objectives:

* Access to "light water" technology. This more modern nuclear reactor technology is cleaner, more efficient and safer. More to the point for U.S. strategic concerns, it is much more difficult to make nuclear weapons from light-water reactors.

* A firm assurance that nuclear weapons will not be used against them.

In addition, senior administration officials said, North Korea wants full diplomatic relations with the West and an economic relationship entailing aid and trade.

The Clinton administration's attitude yesterday was that all of these issues -- and more -- are legitimate subjects for the negotiations. "We are prepared to discuss our political relationship, including diplomatic normalization . . . and our economic relationships," one official said.

U.S. officials, including the president, indicated that they were unsure why the North Koreans had suddenly decided to grasp at terms for negotiations that had been there from the beginning.

One senior administration official, wincing when a reporter described the North Korean letter as a "cave-in" by the North, said he didn't think it was productive to use such characterizations.

Instead, he said, the U.S. side knew only of three "facts" that preceded the North Koreans' decision: U.S. and world pressure on the North Koreans, the possible threat of U.N. economic sanctions and the visit last weekend of Mr. Carter, who offered an alternative -- restarting negotiations.

"They don't confide in us what their motives are," said a senior administration official. "What matters is what they say and do."

In some respects, yesterday's letter from North Korea brought the relationship back where it had stood last July, when the United States and North Korea held their most recent round of high-level talks. A third round never occurred because of repeated North Korean blocking of inspectors' efforts to assess its nuclear program.

But in recent weeks, North Korea has taken new steps to hide its nuclear history while enhancing its potential for making more nuclear weapons. It hastily discharged fuel from a 5-megawatt reactor without giving inspectors the opportunity to examine the spent fuel rods for evidence of nuclear weapons production. The discharged rods, now cooling, could in a period of months be reprocessed to produce nuclear fuel.

The "freeze" means that North Korea will take no steps toward reprocessing these rods and will not refuel the reactor. Inspectors, and their equipment, will be allowed to remain to make sure North Korea complies.

The "freeze" does not cover two areas that may give North Korea the chance to increase its nuclear arsenal rapidly in the future: the development of a larger nuclear reactor and the expansion of a reprocessing facility. Officials say neither action would violate international rules if done under world safeguards.

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