The Korean Nuclear Question

THIS week's agreement between North and South Korea to ban nuclear arms from their peninsula comes on the heels of a Dec. 13 agreement on nonaggression and reconciliation. It bolsters hopes that the two Koreas' long state of war may finally be nearing an end.

But more has to be done before the nuclear issue, which hangs over the nonaggression pact like a cloud, can be completely dispelled. Most important, the gap between agreement and implementation has to be bridged. While the North has agreed to inspection of its nuclear facilities through the International Atomic Energy Agency, it hasn't said when such inspections can begin. And the thoroughness of IAEA inspection is suspect after the experience with Iraq, where weapons programs were hidden from internatio nal view.

More positively, the North also signed on to a program of mutual inspection of sites where nuclear weapons may be produced or stored, along the lines of a proposal put forward earlier by South Korea. A joint North-South commission will be formed to work out procedures, but it's far from certain whether the two sides can agree on the stringency of such procedures.

Still, the steps taken this week are encouraging. Before, the North had refused to renounce its push toward nuclear weapons unless the United States verified that its forces based in the South didn't include such weapons. On Dec. 18, South Korea announced it was free of nuclear arms, but leaders in the North appeared unwilling to take South Korean President Roh Tae Woo at his word.

Meanwhile, Washington said it would not go ahead with troop reductions in the South until Pyongyang relented on the nuclear issue.

Now North Korea has accepted South Korean assurances that US nukes have departed. It has agreed to inspection in principle, though actual implementation remains uncertain.

What might still be needed is a definitive statement by Washington that its policy of providing a nuclear umbrella for South Korea has also departed. That could force the North away from further hedging and toward an inspection program that would allay suspicions on all sides.

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