Time Still Running Out

THAT North Korea may shortly become a nuclear pirate state is rising on the White House list of priority concerns. One reason for this is that the administration does not want North Korea added to the media mantra of White House foreign-policy fiascos: Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. But the main reason ought to be the seriousness of the issue.

In a diplomatic round early this week, North Korea offered to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its declared nuclear sites other than Yongbyon. That isn't surprising; Yongbyon is where the processed plutonium may be. After this latest round the IAEA issued its sternest warning so far, implying that it can no longer verify what is happening with North Korea's nuclear program. Cameras on the inspection sites have run out of film and batteries; some of the film has large blank gaps in it.

The situation is quite delicate. President Clinton does not want to give North Korea an excuse to start war on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, he can't ignore the fact that Pyongyang is playing a very clever stalling game. No one knows what North Korea's strategy is: Are they stalling to finish developing a bomb, or bombs? Or are they playing nuclear hide-and-seek to gain blackmail concessions from the United States and South Korea?

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They may be doing both.

So far the US has negotiated with a huge sack of carrots and no stick. In exchange simply for normal inspections and behavior, the US has offered to stop Team Spirit military exercises, give North Korea light-water reactors, renounce the use of force, withdraw from the peninsula, and give aid.

Since North Korea suspended its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty status in April, negotiations have gone something like this: The US declares time is running out and deadlines must be met. North Korea responds with an inadequate proposal that contains a straw of hope. The White House, worrying about what even a minor action like sanctions could bring, seizes on the straw, and puts a positive spin on events. After Pyongyang's miserable offer this week Mr. Clinton found that ``they understood we needed to both start inspections and the dialogue again between the South and the North.''

Then the cycle begins anew: Realizing that nothing has changed, the White House says time is running out and sets new deadlines.

Perhaps one cannot expect uncooperative states to follow a timetable, not even one they have agreed to. But the summer and fall are gone and now it is December. What is the administration prepared to do?

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