WASHINGTON — WITH crucial negotiations between the United States and North Korea scheduled to begin in Geneva tomorrow, US officials are pretty sure of one thing: This set of diplomatic talks isn't going to be quickly and easily resolved.
The problem is not just that North Korea has proved adept at concealment and stalling as it has proceeded with what US intelligence believes is a nuclear-weapons program. It is also that efforts by the US and its allies to control this suspected bomb-building are mixed in with larger issues, such as preventing nonnuclear states from making atomic weapons and the reunification of North and South Korea.
This background ``does not suggest to one that one can have a week in Geneva and kind of walk out with the issue solved. No one believes that,'' said Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, the administration's point man on Korea, at a recent conference on the subject.
Thus, the Clinton administration's strategy will be to take a step-by-step approach to the talks. US negotiators plan to talk about a series of gradual confidence- and security-building measures that Pyongyang can undertake if it wishes to show goodwill and shed its hermit status for membership in the larger family of nations.
A top US priority is obtaining more details about what North Korea's freezing of its nuclear program, as promised to former President Jimmy Carter in his recent trip to Pyongyang, really means. How long will the freeze last? Does it include a promise to refrain from processing spent nuclear-reactor fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium?
If North Korea provides accurate information about its nuclear program, the US and its allies could respond with their own step-by-step concessions. South Korea, for instance, promised on July 6 that it would consider helping North Korea convert its old-fashioned graphite nuclear reactors to less-dangerous light-water models, if it so wished.
But if past experience holds, North Korea is likely to resist the gradual approach and demand an immediate, comprehensive settlement of all outstanding issues on the Korean peninsula. Considering the complexity of reunification and other problems, such a demand is seen in Washington as a delay tactic; only time will tell if North Korea intends to step back from hard-line positions.
If after a certain period it is clear that talks are deadlocked, the US will resume a push for economic sanctions against North Korea in the United Nations Security Council, US officials say. North Korea's maneuvering may have cleverly undercut international support for such sanctions, but US officials continue to insist that Security Council approval of such strictures is plausible. ``It would not only be plausible, it would be essential,'' Mr. Gallucci said.
Negotiators for the US, led by Gallucci, will meet their North Korean counterparts, probably led by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Sok Ju, at first for two days of exchanging statements. Then there will be a recess of a day or so, followed by a two-day discussion of each other's positions. This pattern could continue for some time, in Geneva or elsewhere, according to the US.
The key issue for the US side is determining what will constitute success in the talks, says Zalmay Khalilzad, a Washington-based RAND Corporation analyst and former Defense Department official in the Bush administration.
IF ``success'' is defined to include North Korea coming clean about its past plutonium separation activities, it is likely that talks will break down. But the North might go along with a freeze on its nuclear program if allowed to remain vague about past activities, Mr. Khalilzad says.
A number of analysts point out that North Korea's program is at a rest stage anyway, with fuel rods recently withdrawn from an experimental nuclear reactor now cooling in a water pond prior to possible reprocessing into plutonium.
But David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, says North Korea could reprocess the rods right now if it wanted to. It would seriously increase the amount of radiation that workers are exposed to - but even the US has at times taken such a risk in a rush for plutonium. There is a limit to how long rods can be kept in cooling ponds, however. Eventually, their cladding decays, and the water itself becomes contaminated. ``That takes less than a year,'' Mr. Albright says.