N. Korea Backs Off Break

THE Clinton administration deserves credit for bringing North Korea back from its perilous withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea's announcement Friday to suspend its withdrawal from the NPT came after intense negotiations by the White House. Particularly effective was the administration's coordination of reassurances and trade incentives for North Korea by its most important neighbors - Japan, China, and South Korea.

None of the NPT's 155 members have ever withdrawn, and the possibility of quasi-Stalinist North Korea breaking with the treaty and openly developing nuclear weapons could start an international crisis.

Yet before too many congratulations are passed around, a hard look at North Korea's decision is still needed. The substantial issues leading to North Korea's threat to withdraw have not been resolved: Last year the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) caught North Korea in a lie. Despite assurances that it had no weapons-grade plutonium, the advanced scientific methods of IAEA inspection found evidence of plutonium accrual in a North Korean nuclear reactor. When asked in March to open up two oth er sites for inspection, Pyongyang not only refused, it announced its NPT withdrawal - though it claimed US-South Korean military exercises were to blame.

What the White House achieved last week was to keep North Korea in the NPT - not halt Pyongyang's development of weapons. North Korea has agreed to allow the IAEA to conduct inspections of certain nuclear reactors - but not the key plant at Yongbyon. North Korea can still withdraw from NPT and continue a nuclear program.

It may be that Pyongyang is prepared to fully rejoin NPT but needs a period of face-saving - hence its decision merely to suspend its withdrawal. North Korea is in a period of transition from "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung to his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, rumored to be less stable than his father. The country is impoverished, isolated, and requires the kind of patience Washington has shown since March. However, more will soon be required of North Korea.

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