ON June 12, North Korea temporarily diffused an international crisis when it announced it would suspend its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The crisis began when Pyongyang announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT on March 12. This declaration was primarily a response to the demand of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be allowed to inspect two undeclared nuclear waste-disposal sites at Yongbyon. Such verification had never been invoked against any NPT member state.
But the crisis is not over. Pyongyang has only temporarily suspended its withdrawal and still will not allow the IAEA access to the two sites in question. Not only the future of Korean relations but the entire nonproliferation regime hinges upon the resolution of the nuclear crisis in North Korea.
Fundamentally, two objectives should guide US actions regarding this crisis. First, strengthen the nonproliferation regime, including the IAEA's right to "special inspections." Second, improve stability on the Korean peninsula.
Until this latest crisis, improvements in North-South Korean relations had been proceeding nicely.
So what changed? Why did Pyongyang reverse that momentum and endanger not only its relations with Seoul, but also with Tokyo, Washington, Moscow, and even Beijing?
There are several possible motivations for North Korean action. They might just have been caught "red-handed" with a significant amount of nuclear material, or even a bomb. Since special inspections had never been invoked before, North Korea might not have believed that the IAEA would ever request access to these sites.
North Korea might also have thought that it had been making concessions to the US and the IAEA without receiving any benefits (there have been six regular IAEA inspections in North Korea since April 1992, but none verifying the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korean soil).
Some analysts have speculated that Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's son and heir-designate might be provoking this crisis to improve his credibility as the next North Korean leader.
Regardless of its motivation, however, it is clear that North Korea's intention is reversible. In fact, Pyongyang has consistently articulated its conditions to permanently remain in the NPT. In its initial statement on March 12, North Korea declared its "...principled stand will remain unchanged until the United States stops its nuclear threats against the DPRK and the IAEA Secretariat returns to its principle of independence and impartiality."
On May 3, Kim Gi Ryong, North Korea's information minister, reiterated these conditions, specifying that Pyongyang wanted the US to withdraw its nuclear weapons from South Korea. Although the Clinton administration has been slow to act, it has taken two significant preliminary measures.
Beginning on June 2, Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the UN, reiterated the US position that it would not use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear, NPT member-states.
On June 2-3, Washington met with North Korean leaders about this issue, even though the US does not officially recognize North Korea. Diplomatically, this is a significant step for North Korea, which is trying to improve its political legitimacy and trade relations with the international community.
Substantively, however, the high-level meetings removed the June 12 deadline but did not resolve the issues that precipitated the crisis.
Additional measures can still be taken to strengthen the NPT and improve stability on the Korean Peninsula.
In return for North Korea's permanent reversal of its intention to withdraw from the NPT, and Pyongyang's acceptance of special inspections on the two nuclear sites in question, the US should:
* Reassure Pyongyang that any evidence of its nuclear program will not be punished by the international community as long as it renounces nuclear weapons. We should encourage North Korea to follow South Africa's example and just "come clean." Any negative precedent set by "forgiveness" has already been set by South Africa and is insignificant if North Korea's potential nuclear program can be incorporated into the treaty's safeguards.
* Immediately invite the IAEA to inspect the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korean soil. This would set no precedent but it would enhance the perception of the IAEA as an impartial body.
* Offer the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea upon successful resolution of the nuclear issue.
This would not set a bad precedent, both because North Korea has never explicitly demanded diplomatic relations and because the United States should establish diplomatic relations with any responsible, nonnuclear members of the international community.
Any precedent set would be positive.
The US, acting with the international community, has the capability to successfully manage a major international crisis. Without resolution of this crisis, tensions on the Korean peninsula and the risk of nuclear proliferation will increase drastically.
The measures outlined above would address all three possible North Korean motivations and give North Korea a way out by offering Pyongyang better political standing and a superior climate for economic relations, once the nuclear issue is resolved.
The worst thing that the US can do is assume that this crisis has been resolved. In fact, it has only been postponed.