THE United States is watching and waiting as North Korea weighs one of the biggest decisions of its national life.
One of the last bastions of communist rule, North Korea has taken dramatic steps during the past several months to break out of its self-imposed diplomatic isolation. Its overtures have extended even to New York, where the US and North Korea last month held their highest-level talks since the Korean War.
But hopeful signs of thaw in the heavily fortified Korean peninsula will mean little unless North Korea bows to international demands to open its nuclear facilities to outside inspection and dismantle its alleged nuclear-weapons program. Refusal could add to tensions in East Asia and fuel nuclear proliferation concerns. Acceptance could cool off the last remaining hot spot of the cold war.
Nuclear concessions would also facilitate what one senior US official describes as a "broader and deeper dialogue" that, in time, could lead to normal relations between old Cold War adversaries.
"If North Korea is serious about the nuclear issue, we can begin a more serious dialogue on other issues," says the official.
In addition to nuclear weapons, the US would like to talk to North Korea about terrorism, hostile Korean propaganda directed at the US and South Korea, and the status of 8,000 prisoners of war missing since the Korean War.
The immediate US objective is to convince North Korea to agree by next week to international inspection of its nuclear facilities. The prime ministers of North and South Korea will meet Feb. 19 to discuss the issue.
In what the US official describes as a "fundamental shift," North Korea has taken a series of steps that augur well for progress on the nuclear issue.
Last summer it initialed a nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would allow access to inspectors from the agency that monitors compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In December it signed an agreement with South Korea to ban possession and development of nuclear weapons. On Jan. 30 it belatedly signed the safeguards agreement.
The concessions were a key part of a strategy to attract Western aid, technology, and management expertise that North Korea needs to rejuvenate its economy and - in the words of the US official remain a viable state." North Korea is haunted by the precedent of East Germany, a stagnant communist state that was swallowed up by its prosperous Western neighbor. In the dread analogy, South Korea assumes the role of West Germany.
But despite its pressing needs, North Korea has still not clarified its nuclear intentions. Just why is difficult for outsiders to judge.
The worst-case assumption is that North Korea, still harboring ambitions of forcibly unifying the peninsula, is merely buying time until its nuclear-weapons program is operational. Pyongyang says it could be weeks before North Korea's parliament, in a constitutionally unnecessary step, ratifies the IAEA agreement. The country could be producing plutonium within six months and nuclear bombs a year or two after that.
The more benign interpretation is that the Pyongyang government is buying time to rethink its long-term policy and marshal the bureaucratic consensus needed to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons.
"If you believe that [North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung is still an evil Stalinist, then he is going through a charade to buy time to complete his nuclear-weapons program," says Richard Fisher of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center in Washington. "On the other hand, the great reversals of policy of the past few months may be evidence of an internal process that will eventually lead to resolution of the nuclear issue."
North Korea's reluctance to be forthcoming on the nuclear issue is all the more surprising given its recent conciliatory gestures toward South Korea.
In addition to last month's nuclear agreement with Seoul, Pyongyang in recent months has dropped its opposition to separate UN membership for the two Koreas, signed a nonaggression pact with Seoul, and agreed to regular North-South contacts. The Feb. 19 meeting, in Pyongyang, is the sixth in rapid succession of ministerial-level meetings.
The US and South Korea have sought to lure North Korea from its nuclear program with significant concessions of its own. Last year Washington unilaterally removed all of its nuclear weapons from South Korea and opened its bases to inspection by the North. Seoul then pledged to remain nuclear free. Last month, both countries agreed to cancel joint military maneuvers to which the North has long objected.
Uncertainty over North Korean nuclear intentions did prompt the US to postpone phase two of a drawdown of US troops in South Korea. Phase one reductions will total 7,000 out of 43,000 by the end of this year.
At a minimum, inspections would slow down North Korea's weapons program. But as the case of Iraq illustrates, notes Dr. Fisher, weapons programs can be hidden even with intrusive inspections.
US officials believe nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea would pose a grave threat to regional stability. Beyond their possible use in East Asia - directly or as an instrument of blackmail to gain political and economic concessions - there is the concern that North Korea would export nuclear weapons, materials or technology, as it has Scud missiles, to countries like Iran, Libya, and Syria.
As South Korea and the IAEA press the issue of inspections directly, the US is quietly urging the international community to exert pressure of its own.
China has said that there should be no nuclear weapons in the peninsula and has urged Pyongyang to accept inspections. Japan, meanwhile, says full implementation of safeguards is a precondition to normalized relations and the foreign aid North Korea so badly needs.
If North Korea does not submit to persuasion, the UN could eventually be called upon to impose economic sanctions.