AS a key player in the high-stakes drama over whether North Korea will pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) before a June 12 deadline, the United States may soon enter center- stage.
The US has agreed in principle to hold high-level talks with its adversary in Pyongyang as a concession to keep the Communist regime under the NPT's inspection process, with some reports that a meeting might take place as early as this week.
"The US is willing to meet with North Korea to help resolve the current situation resulting from actions North Korea has taken in the nuclear area," a US State Department spokesman said last week in Washington.
But the danger exists that such talks might help North Korea avoid possible economic sanctions being considered by the United Nations or allow it to continue a suspected nuclear weapons project. Nuclear incitement
The negotiations could be one of the most difficult for the Clinton administration, with the risk that failure to curb North Korea's apparent nuclear ambition might incite South Korea and Japan to make their own nuclear bomb. And Washington is keen not to let North Korea set a precedent by being the first to pull out of the 155-nation international accord, or to be led into more concessions.
"The important question for Seoul is how can Pyongyang be made to give up the nuclear option," says Kyudok Hong of South Korea's Research Institute for National Unification. "Talks between Washington and Pyongyang could break the impasse and give more room for Seoul to move forward in North-South relations."
Past military regimes in Seoul have strongly opposed a separate dialogue between the US and North Korea. The Stalinist government of Kim Il Sung has long sought to divide the alliance between the US and Seoul, hoping to use such a division to rally South Koreans to revolt.
But with a fully democratic government in Seoul under a civilian president, Kim Young Sam, South Korea is more secure in its confrontation with the North, and has even encouraged a reluctant US to consider talks with Pyongyang.
North Korea recently announced a "10-point Program for Grand National Unity," which repeats many previous positions, but puts priority on a strategy of dialogue, not only with the US but between North Korea and non-government groups in the South.
The North announced on March 12 that it would withdraw from the treaty after it was confronted with a demand by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a special inspection of two sites. The IAEA, which enforces the treaty, used US satellite photos and other information to accuse North Korea of making far more bomb-grade plutonium than it reported. Under a 90-day waiting period required by the treaty, the North's withdrawal would not take place until June 12.
US expectations that China, the North's only major ally, might persuade Pyongyang to drop its withdrawal plans were diminished when Beijing wanted the US to talk with North Korea first.
"The United States is the chief criminal who gave rise to the nuclear problem in Korea," said North Korea's official newspaper, Rodong, on April 19. "If the IAEA values impartiality, it must condemn the United States first of all, not the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
South Korean analysts say such statements indicate that Pyongyang can count on China to block Security Council sanctions or tone down any resolution. The full Council meets today to hammer out the final wording of a resolution.
Pyongyang charges the IAEA with a double standard, saying that nuclear development by South Africa and Israel, Japan's nuclear energy policy, and the US nuclear "umbrella" for South Korea are "ignored with impunity."
The North opposes the Council taking up the issue, saying a solution can only come in talks with Washington. Diplomacy needed
On April 12, officials from Japan, the US, and South Korea met to coordinate their positions, and they gave a green light to the US opening talks with the North. The US was reluctant to "reward" a nation that wants to flout the NPT, but South Korea decided that almost any diplomatic effort was needed to bring the North back into IAEA inspections.
On April 22, South Korea announced that US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff would lead high-level talks with the North.
South Korea does not worry about the US venturing into talks solo with the North because of a new cooperation between Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing.
Mr. Tarnoff's predecessor in the Bush administration, Arnold Kantoer, met with Kim Young Sun, director of the international department of North Korea's communist party in New York in January 1992, just after North and South Korea signed a wide-ranging peace agreement that has since not been implemented. Highest-level contact
Those talks were mainly a chance for the US to state its concerns about the North's nuclear program. But they were the highest level contact between Washington and Pyongyang since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The US has held 32 secretive, low-level talks with the North since 1988, but only between embassy counselors in Beijing. The latest meeting was May 5 in what was seen as a possible prelude to vice-ministerial talks. Higher-level talks would imply a forum for negotiations and not just informati on exchange.
By agreeing to talk, the US may give Pyongyang enough of a face-saving triumph that it might agree to stay within the treaty.
South Korea's official news agency Yonhap reported that a North Korean diplomat in Cairo stated that Pyongyang had "already decided to return to the NPT."
The US may be waiting for just such an informal signal before entering the talks.
South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo told reporters that the talks would take place "only at the right time," interpreted to mean that North Korea must first agree to stay within the NPT.
But in anticipation of the talks, North Korean officials have leaked demands that they plan to present to the US. They want:
* the US to stop its joint military exercises with the South,
* the right to inspect US military installations in the South,
* a US guarantee that it will not launch a nuclear attack on North Korea,
* the US to lift its nuclear "umbrella" over South Korea,
* and the US to recognize the socialist system in North Korea.
But the outgoing commander of the US forces in South Korea, Gen. Robert RisCassi, sees it differently.
"North Korea is no longer manageable," he told a Senate committee on April 21. "We are increasingly concerned that North Korea could slide into an attack as an uncontrollable consequence of total desperation or international instability."