NORTH Korea's decision to allow inspections of its seven declared nuclear sites is a slight move from the sad brinkmanship game it has been playing. The back and forth between North and South Korea, multiple US intelligence reports of a North Korean bomb, bristling military rhetoric, and the possible deployment of Patriot missiles in South Korea - all result from Pyongyang's sorry game-playing.
South Korea rightly recommended Thursday that ``Team Spirit'' military exercises be canceled, following the inspections.
North Korea's game, however, is hardly over. Allowing inspections is at the least self-serving. Acquiescence came days before the International Atomic Energy Agency would have reported to the UN Security Council that it could not certify North Korea's compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Such a step would probably lead to economic sanctions on an already impoverished state.
Actually, IAEA officials and other experts say that North Korea was technically out of compliance months ago. Inspection cameras stopped working; there was no international monitoring. Plutonium could have been whisked away to at least two other undeclared nuclear sites, sites that IAEA inspectors won't be visiting.
Some argue that North Korea, isolated and paranoid, requires more patience. Pyongyang is worried about losing its identity and being absorbed by South Korea and its powerful allies. It is under the erratic guidance of ``Dear Leader'' Kim Jong Il, son of ``Great Leader'' Kim Il Sung, who has been behind the recent North Korean saber rattling. (Reports Thursday that Dear Leader Kim has suffered a serious injury could change matters.) North Korea shows a willingness to move from graphite to light-water reactors less capable of processing plutonium - if the West will pay $2 billion over 10 years.
By threatening to withdraw from the NPT, then suspending that withdrawal, Pyongyang has created a splendid bargaining chip at no cost. United States and UN diplomats have tied themselves in knots; the leaders of various Western capitals have scurried about coming up with plans for aid, suspension of military exercises on the Korean peninsula, an engagement of China to act as a broker (at some cost) - all to get North Korea to the position it was in last spring as an NPT signatory.
Yet the West still won't know North Korea's status. The Clinton administration has focused on negotiations; we hope plans for options other than negotiations are also in place.