U.S. concessions could give N. Korea upper hand

September 18, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- As part of a bargain to stop the fast-growing North Korean nuclear program, the Clinton administration has quietly made concessions that could permit an eventual resumption on short notice, outside analysts say.

Leaders of the Pyongyang regime will retain "a latent ability to break out of this deal if they feel it is unsatisfactory," said Jonathan Pollack, a Korea expert at the RAND Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.

And if they do, maintained Henry Sokolski, a former Pentagon specialist on nonproliferation, "North Korea would still be producing new plutonium in the reactor it had before and be able to make at least as many bombs as it now can."

The United States and North Korea began to move toward a settlement of the nuclear crisis in a vague, conditional agreement signed Aug. 12 after talks in Geneva. Those talks are scheduled to resume Friday.

In the deal sketched out last month, the United States said it is prepared to take steps toward diplomatic recognition of North Korea and to supply it with new, less dangerous nuclear technology if North Korea will freeze its nuclear program and will rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty provides for international safeguards to prevent development of nuclear bombs.

Administration officials argue that the emerging deal is of tremendous benefit to the United States and its allies, primarily because it would eliminate North Korea's ability to produce regular, large amounts of nuclear fuel that it could use to make bombs or export to other countries.

But the deal comes with significant qualifications or concessions:

* North Korea would halt construction of two huge nuclear reactors. But its smaller reactor at Yongbyon, which has already been used to make plutonium, a key ingredient for nuclear weapons, would remain.

* North Korea has agreed to "seal" its reprocessing plant, which could turn spent nuclear fuel into plutonium. But, so far, there is no guarantee that this reprocessing facility would be dismantled in the fashion the United States wants.

* About 8,000 rods of spent nuclear fuel, removed from the Yongbyon plant in the spring, would be sealed or encased for protection. Yet instead of being shipped out of the country for disposal, as the administration had wanted, U.S. officials have begun to acknowledge that the rods could be kept in North Korea.

* The Clinton administration insists North Korea submit to international inspections. But the administration also has begun to make concessions about the timing of the inspections, saying they can be put off for now and perhaps for years.

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