NORTH KOREA, which Clinton officials regard as the greatest threat to Asian-Pacific stability, has begun to meet two of Washington's demands before a mid-September deadline.
Yesterday, a radio broadcast by North Korea indicated that the communist regime would reopen negotiations with South Korea on the question of its alleged nuclear-weapons program.
On the same day, leaders in Pyongyang met a second US demand and renewed talks with a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over resuming inspections of their nuclear facilities.
Both steps signal an eagerness by North Korea to sustain its talks with the United States. Those talks began in June, soon after Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and end inspections by the IAEA. The US set the demands and the deadline at the second round of talks in July.
Despite the apparent progress, doubts persist that Pyongyang may be just playing for time to finish its alleged nuclear-weapons and missile programs, and that it could easily slow down cooperation with the IAEA and South Korea.
Next week, the US will send negotiator Robert Gallucci to Japan and South Korea to discuss possible joint countermeasures against the North, such as economic sanctions, in case US demands are not being met. Mr. Gallucci, who is US assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, will then head to Geneva to meet his North Korean counterpart.
At the same time, says a South Korean diplomat in Tokyo, the US and its two allies are also playing for time, hoping that the rapidly deteriorating economy in North Korea, as well as possible political dissent, may force leader Kim Il Sung to compromise on the nuclear issue soon.
``Both sides are in a waiting game, and our side can afford to wait longer,'' says the diplomat.
In its talks with the IAEA, the North is demanding that the UN agency become ``impartial'' in its inspections. Pyongyang's concerns first arose last February when the IAEA requested that it be allowed to inspect two sites on the suspicion that they might reveal that the North had already made weapons-grade plutonium.
The sites are situated at a nuclear complex in Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. Some US officials have not ruled out a military strike against the complex, a threat that North Korea's official press says raises suspicions that the US is ``not truly willing to fundamentally solve the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula.''
The IAEA's reliance on photos taken by US spy satellites has particularly irked the North. ``The negotiations will provide an opportunity of proving the unreasonable behavior of the IAEA toward [North Korea] in the past and correcting it,'' a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang was quoted as saying by the official press.
``We have to rely on information from member states,'' says IAEA spokesman Han Meyer.
The North may have timed its recent moves to come at the end of joint military training between US and South Korean forces. The Aug. 17-31 exercises were seen by Pyongyang as having an ``unfavorable effect'' on its talks with the US and on settling the ``nuclear problem.''
South Korea in recent weeks has hardened its stance toward the North, with President Kim Young Sam warning that international economic sanctions are ``inevitable'' if Pyongyang fails to allow full inspections of its nuclear facilities.
THE US and South Korea have used up all possible diplomatic initiatives and have nothing more to give North Korea to persuade it to change its position, according to South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo.
``South Korea has exhausted its store of carrots in trying to induce North Korea to come clean of nuclear suspicion and will rely more on the stick from now on,'' Mr. Han said on state radio. ``We have given everything we can give ... now it's time to show Pyongyang what sticks are in store.''
Possibly as a tactic to keep the US at the negotiating table, North Korea agreed on Aug. 24 to resolve the issue of unaccounted-for US servicemen from the Korean war. US officials might be allowed to search for the remains of soldiers in the North, even though the two nations are still technically in a state of war. While some 8,140 soldiers are unaccounted-for, experts estimate that only about 2,000 could really be classified as missing.
``No doubt, North Korea is trying to use the issue as a way of buttering up Washington,'' said a Korea Herald editorial. ``Certainly, the Pyongyang regime has in mind the deals Vietnam had with Washington in negotiating the return of US MIAs,'' referring to soldiers Missing In Action.