NORTH KOREA, suspected of making an atomic bomb, could soon follow Iraq as the next target of United Nations economic sanctions.
The Communist regime in Pyongyang has reached a critical standoff with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN affiliate in Vienna, over its refusal to allow a special IAEA inspection of two nuclear sites.
By Friday, the IAEA's 35-member Board of Governors is expected to decide whether to ask the UN Security Council to impose sanctions, a move North Korea warns could lead to war.
The issue might confront the Clinton administration with a thorny problem, especially since the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea has raised anxiety in Japan and South Korea, both allies of the United States.
IAEA officials say they suspect North Korea has stockpiled more plutonium than it reported to the agency. They base their suspicions on "significant inconsistencies" uncovered by six previous IAEA investigations since May and on US images gathered from intelligence satellite and high-altitude flights over North Korea.
Two sites in North Korea have been singled out for unprecedented "special" inspection by the IAEA. The demand is the first time the IAEA has invoked rules allowing a special inspection of a site not specified by a country.
Criticized for not spotting Iraq's nuclear-bomb project earlier, the IAEA has decided to take a tough stance with North Korea. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea is obliged to report all fissionable nuclear materials. Learning from Iraq
"The case of Iraq showed that we need more and more information," says IAEA spokesman Hans Meyer. Inspectors want to enter two buildings to find out if plutonium is being extracted from spent nuclear fuel.
For three reasons, the 36 governors of the IAEA might hesitate to ask for UN sanctions, however, analysts in Tokyo and Seoul say:
* China, which supports North Korea, might veto any such proposal in the Security Council.
* The North is already so isolated and economically depressed that sanctions may have little effect, and could only raise tensions on the Korean peninsula.
* North Korea may be taking a hard line temporarily in reaction to a US-South Korea military exercise scheduled for mid-March.
Choi Young Choul, South Korea's minister for national unification, said this month the North is using the inspections issue as a "card" to stop the joint exercises and to win recognition from Japan and the US. The military exercises will involve some 120,000 US and South Korean troops, far fewer than the 180,000 to 200,000 of recent years.
Some South Korean officials speculate that North Korea will compromise on the inspections once the military drills, known as Team Spirit, end in late March. The North canceled high-level talks between the two Koreas in December, citing the joint maneuvers as an excuse.
The exercises were canceled in 1992 as a gesture to the North, but were scheduled for this spring after Pyongyang refused "to change its stand about our suggestion to dispel the suspicion concerning its nuclear weapons development program," says South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Park Jae Wook.
A February 1992 accord signed by the two Koreas calls for mutual inspection of nuclear installations to supplement IAEA inspections. China's role
Until now, China has publicly sided with North Korea in its denial of an atomic-bomb project. Its stance will be critical in any UN debate.
"I doubt the possibility of North Korea having or producing nuclear [weapons]," China's ambassador to South Korea, Zhang Tingyan, told the Korea Herald last month. "To develop nuclear weapons, one needs tremendous amount of money and a very high degree of technology. You know how bad the economic situation in North Korea has become."
The ambassador spent much of his diplomatic career in Pyongyang. He called it "inappropriate for the US and Japan not to improve ties with North Korea until the nuclear issue is resolved.
In Seoul, President Kim Young Sam, who takes office today, has said he wants the UN to play a decisive role in forcing North Korea to comply with the inspection. But South Korean officials suggest that they might bring the issue to the UN if the IAEA fails to.
"If the North shuns mutual inspections to the end, we will deal with the issue from the aspect of guaranteeing our national survival and ensuring our national security," Mr. Choi told the South Korean parliament.
The IAEA also wants to take a sample of the core in North Korea's nuclear reactor, but the North says this can only be done in a few weeks when the reactor will be shut down for refueling.
North Korea claims the two sites that the IAEA wants to inspect are military facilities with no nuclear activity. It also accuses the agency of acting as a spy for the US.