IN a test of wills with high stakes for Asia, South Korea has started a game of diplomatic chicken with North Korea over an alleged attempt by the North to build a nuclear bomb.
Even though North Korea denies the charge, Seoul has set a deadline of June 8 for the North to open key nuclear sites to inspections by the South. The demand is based on an accord the two nations concluded in February calling for mutual inspections of suspected nuclear-weapons sites on both sides.
"Until the last moment, you can't tell what their thinking is. That's why we have set a deadline," says Gong Ro Myung, head of the South Korean delegation to the new Joint Nuclear Control Committee (JNCC) set up under the North-South agreement.
The South is worried that the North is using delaying tactics in negotiations to allow it to finish a bomb, perhaps within a year.
"North Korean Communist leaders haven't yet changed their basic orientation," says Kang Young Hoon, the former South Korean prime minister who first opened talks with the North in 1990. "They say they don't have a nuclear-weapons program, but the [United States and South Korean] intelligence community are agreed that they have reached the final stage of producing a bomb.
"This will only heighten the tension on the Korean peninsula and in this part of Asia as well," Mr. Kang adds.
If the Communist leaders in Pyongyang fail to meet the deadline, officials in Seoul say they will likely ask the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against North Korea. Some Seoul officials say sanctions would greatly damage the North's economy, which declined an estimated 3.7 percent last year, the first fall in decades, which was caused primarily by a cut-off of aid from Moscow.
"The North's economy is very crippled. They will face bankruptcy with a boycott," says Tae Hwan Ok, director of the South Korea's Research Institute for National unification. "But they will never give up. They can survive."
While other South Korean officials say a boycott might be effective, they hope the mere threat of sanctions will be enough for the North to abandon its alleged nuclear program. South Korea's patience and the North's economy are both wearing thin.
Both Koreas are watching carefully the situation in Iraq to see if UN sanctions and the threat of US air strikes will compel Saddam Hussein to fully allow international inspections of Iraqi nuclear facilities. Last week, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Won Shik said the possibility of a US airstrike against North Korea's nuclear installations "must be averted."
"All we can do now is make sure they live up to their agreement," Mr. Gong says. "If they de-nuclearize themselves, it will definitely allow an improvement of ties with the South, the US, Japan, and Europe; and the North will benefit from trade."
If the North fails to meet the deadline, says Gong, "then it becomes very interesting. Then world opinion will deal with it."
In addition, Washington has warned North Korea that it must start allowing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency before the IAEA board meets in mid-June.
North Korea, which initialed an inspections agreement with the IAEA in January, says its Supreme Assembly will approve the pact in April, although it could raise more obstacles to inspections after that.
At the first meeting of the JNCC on March 19, South Korea was told by the North that yet another agreement would be needed to implement the previous agreement, which the North considers just statements of intent.
North Korea also said that all aspects of its agreements with the South, ranging from economic relations to nuclear inspections, are linked and must be implemented together, otherwise none will go ahead, Gong says.
For its part, the South proposed that the two Koreas hold regular inspections of nuclear sites four times a year and special inspections 12 times a year. But, says Gong, "they don't have a concept of regular inspections.
"They put up difficult conditions, instead of accepting normal, common sense practices of reciprocity. They are insisting on the kind of inspections that would clear up their suspicions that there are nuclear weapons in the South and in the American bases. This is a beyond established practices."
Last November, President Roh Tae Woo declared that South Korea was nuclear-free, marking the final withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons.
Rather than allow inspections, the North is still trying to have remaining US troops removed from South Korea. "They want to show the world that the relationship between North and South has changed, that they are able to take joint actions on international matters," Kang says.
But even with the pressure of a deadline and sanctions, South Korean leaders are looking for a way to give the North a face-saving way to back down. "That a dilemma for us," says Kang. Perhaps, he adds, the North's one ally, China, will persuade them.
For the last two years, Seoul has changed its policy to one of "peaceful coexistence" with its cold-war rival, rather than seeking quick unification. With the end of the Soviet empire, the North's leaders fear being absorbed the South, much like West Germany took over the East.
"In plain English, they want some truce with us, to be liberated from this fear of being absorbed by us."