NORTH KOREA and the United States are stepping up a diplomatic confrontation on the issue of nuclear weapons. Each side charges that the other has a nuclear weapons capability on the Korean peninsula. North Korea denies a recent US claim that it is building a manufacturing complex able to produce an atomic bomb as early as the mid-1990s. The US charges are based on satellite photographs.
And the US, as a matter of policy, has decided neither to deny nor confirm North Korea's reports that the US keeps nuclear weapons in or around South Korea. Some 43,000 US troops are stationed in the country.
To the US advantage, pressure is mounting on North Korea from the Soviet Union and others to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities. In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but has not agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its plants.
But strong voices are also being heard for the Republic of Korea (ROK) to declare that the US does not deploy nuclear weapons in its country. Such a step was recommended in February by an influential panel of former South Korean and US officials, including the former US commander for Korea, Gen. John Vessey, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Gaston Sigur.
``Since deterrence of attack and defending the ROK does not depend on having nuclear weapons stored in South Korea,'' the panel report said, ``there would seem to be valuable political reasons for the ROK government being able to say that there were no nuclear weapons stored on its soil.''
Those ``valuable political reasons'' for such a declaration include the government's hope of stopping the growth of an antinuclear movement in South Korea. Although the movement is still small, South Korean activists are trying to link a growing environmental movement with the issue of US nuclear weapons.
The government also worries that environmentalists might slow down ambitious plans to build 50 nuclear power plants by 2030. Nine plants are already in operation.
A violent protest last year successfully shelved a government plan to build a waste disposal site for the country's nuclear power program.
``The environmentalists might coalesce with the anti-American groups to indiscriminately take up any nuclear issue,'' said a South Korean member of the panel. ``We can take care of the issue now by simply letting it be known that there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea.
``As we saw in the Gulf, the US really doesn't need nuclear weapons in a regional war,'' he added. ``If war breaks out in Korea, we assume that we don't need to cross that nuclear threshold.''
THE Japanese business newspaper, Nikkei, reported May 2 that the US and Soviet Union are holding secret talks on removing the alleged US nuclear weapons from South Korea to prevent North Korea from developing an atomic bomb.
Moscow threatened last month to cut all nuclear supplies to North Korea unless it allowed IAEA inspections of its plants. But experts say a cutoff may not hinder a bomb-development program. And Japan, the only new source of money for the ailing North Korean economy, has refused such aid, as well as establishing diplomatic ties, until the north agrees to the inspections.
North Korea recently softened its position by no longer demanding that the US remove the alleged weapons, but instead that it guarantee to never use nuclear weapons in Korea. Officials in Seoul believe the north is moving to compromise on the issue.
The issue of nuclear weapons was highlighted in South Korea last month when South Korea's Defense Minister Lee Jong Koo said that his forces might launch a commando raid against North Korean nuclear facilities if inspections are not allowed.