IN a move seen as either a diplomatic bluff or a nuclear threat, North Korea has announced plans to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the first nation ever to do so.
The surprise action by a nation known for its past terrorism may force the issue of the North's nuclear program into the United Nations Security Council. The UN's options, however, are limited by the present economic isolation of the Pyongyang regime and the possibility that it already has a nuclear bomb, some analysts say.
On the other hand, since the NPT requires members to give three-months' notice before withdrawing, North Korea's move could be just a ploy to achieve a compromise in coming weeks from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN agency that overseas the treaty.
On Feb. 25, the Vienna-based IAEA demanded a "special" inspection of two suspect facilities within a month, after which it would refer the matter to the Security Council. The agency, relying on data from United States spy planes, estimates that the North may have produced large quantities of bomb-grade plutonium.
Rather than comply, the North on March 12 announced its withdrawal from the NPT, triggering renewed concern that it might be trying to hide a bomb program.
"If this is a ploy, it might work," says Paul Leventhal, head of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based private watchdog body. "It changes the subject from acceptance of inspections to whether North Korea stays in the NPT."
North Korean officials indicate they are still willing to deal with the IAEA, but first want it to stop using information from the US. The North claims the US made 190 reconnaissance flights over its territory in February alone.
Since last May, the IAEA has been allowed to make six ground inspections of sites chosen by North Korea. The "special" inspection was sought on a site specified by the IAEA.
Despite the possibility that the North's move is just a gambit, its action has raised tensions in Asia, where many nations fear Japan make seek atomic weapons if threatened by North Korea. Japanese officials last week backed up US reports that the North has 33 to 55 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium, at least twice the amount needed for one bomb. North Korea says it has extracted only a few ounces of plutonium from a research reactor.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa said the North's decision has "serious security implications in East Asia ... and in the global context." A South Korean spokesman said the North Korean withdrawal "will not only threaten stability on the Korean peninsula but also endanger world peace and stability."
PYONGYANG'S action could derail its on-again-off-again talks with South Korea on non-nuclear issues at a time when the South has a new president, Kim Young Sam, who seeks to improve bilateral ties.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that sanctions against the North might be considered, but he also expressed hope that the plan to withdraw might be reversed.
China, the only major ally of North Korea, will play a pivotal role if the Security Council takes up the issue. Japan eagerly sought China's intervention with North Korea over the weekend.
The withdrawal notice also puts in doubt the credibility of the IAEA.
"The IAEA is too weak and too slow to tackle all their functions," Dr. Leventhal says. "North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 and it took seven years for it to sign an inspection agreement with the IAEA. And now they are still diddling."
Another reason given by the North for its action was the annual joint military exercise between the US and South Korea, known as "Team Spirit." This year's exercise was seen by the North as particularly provocative because it included several advanced weapons, such as the B1-B bomber. But the North also may have been angered that it had to respond with its own military mobilization at a time when its economy is weak and its fuel supplies low.
The North's Korean Central News Agency said Pyongyang would not change its stance "until the United States stops its nuclear threats against North Korea and the IAEA Secretariat returns to its principles of independence and impartiality."