UNITED States policy toward the Korean peninsula has been preoccupied recently by uncertainties over North Korea's nuclear intentions and how that issue might influence South Korean and Japanese nuclear options.
These concerns lay at the heart of talks last week between President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam. At the end of the talks, Mr. Clinton affirmed Washington's committment to South Korea's security but also offered to hold wide-ranging talks with North Korea if it foregoes development of nuclear weapons and fulfills its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
On the surface, the threats emanating from proliferation appear clear, but on closer examination, they show considerable ambiguity. In this dangerous period US policy should aim at cutting through the fog enveloping questions about North Korea's nuclear potential.
Most analysts argue that North Korea's nuclear potential poses two risks: the danger that Pyongyang might develop nuclear weapons and the means to use them; and the likelihood that such an arsenal would increase the pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to build their own nuclear weapons.
These prospects lead some American hawks to contemplate a preemptive military strike against North Korea to assure it will be unable to engage in risky actions. Fortunately, wiser heads in the Clinton administration have prevailed. Washington has, instead, sought to negotiate a diplomatic resolution to this thorny issue.
Equally important, Seoul has been wary of American preemptive actions; it also favors negotiations. South Koreans recognize that Pyongyang's feared ``nukes'' are bargaining chips; they cannot be played militarily in any meaningful way that would not invite North Korea's destruction. For both the US and South Korea, negotiation is the preferred option.
Seoul faces two other alternatives:
* Match North Korea in the nuclear game. A nuclear balance on the Korean peninsula conceivably could enhance conventional deterrence between them and help lower each Korea's defense costs. Furthermore, it would allow Koreans to deter China and - if Tokyo pursues its nuclear option - Japan, despite US concerns that this is precisely what could lead to Japanese nuclearization.
Overall, Seoul discredits this option out of fear of sending the wrong signals. But this situation has perverse utility because it maximizes South Korean leverage over the United States.
* Wait to absorb the north's nuclear technology. A vocal minority in South Korea argues that any nuclear technology and weapons that North Korea develops eventually will become part of a greater Korea after unification under Seoul's leadership. From this perspective there is no point in destroying what will become part of a unified Korea's composite capabilities.
The same principle applies to the probable outcome of a US-guided negotiated settlement that seems most likely today - the conversion of Pyongyang's nuclear agenda to an explicitly peaceful venue, using safer light water reactor technology.
If Pyongyang and Washington can finesse such a deal, it would take several years to fulfill and might best be accomplished by transferring such technology from South Korea to North Korea. In the long run, it would tend to make inter-Korean energy technology more compatible. This, too, reinforces the sense that the anxieties aroused by North Korea's nuclear threat may be excessive, since Seoul expects to control the destiny of a unified Korea's nuclear option anyway.
This alternative usually is ridiculed by mainstream South Koreans. However, the idea that the Korean nation might benefit after unification from its cumulative nuclear capabilities may not be as far-fetched as its critics allege.
AGAINST this background Americans should reconsider US objectives concerning the Korean nuclear question. North Korea's nuclear card is a potent diplomatic lever. It has enjoyed remarkable success so far, and some progress in US-North Korean negotiations is evident. If Pyongyang actually developed nuclear weapons, a new threshold in the inter-Korean confrontation might be perceived. However, that would not necessarily make North Korea grossly more dangerous than its already existing chemical and biological weapons capabilities make it.
All three types of weapons fall within the ``unthinkable'' class, useful almost exclusively for deterrence. But Pyongyang cannot use any of them without risking the regime's suicide. Hence the increased threat is at best incremental; its leverage for North Korea lies in the apprehensions about regional reactions that it generates in the United States.
If America deals with Pyongyang's nuclear lever primarily as a bargaining chip rather than a dangerous escalation of the military threat, Washington will be better able to ride out the negotiations with greater equanimity and patience.
Although the Clinton administration has made clear that a North Korean attack on South Korea will be met with swift and decisive retaliation by joint US-Republic of Korea forces, its first response to North Korean diplomatic intransigence will likely be economic sanctions.
In the cold-war era such sanctions would have been virtually meaningless because of North Korea's relative self-sufficiency. Today, however, it is clear that the post-cold-war context has exposed North Korea's economic vulnerabilities. That is precisely what made North Korea amenable to ``carrot and stick'' pressures.
The trouble with using the nonmilitary form of ``stick'' is that it is an open admission to Pyongyang that our carrot is our stick. This is best left less explicit so that Pyongyang can save face. The punitive American economic card is as risky for the US to use as the North Korean nuclear card is dangerous to Pyongyang. All of this calls for more diplomatic sophistication than either Pyongyang or Washington normally display toward each other.
Equally important, the US must bear in mind Seoul's expectation to lead a united Korea. Washington thus will be better positioned to address the pros and cons of a unified Korean ally possessing nuclear know-how. South Korean disavowals of such intentions should be treated with healthy skepticism. At a minimum Washington should anticipate the ways that Seoul might be able to utilize the combined nuclear potential of the north and the south as leverage for a unified Korea's relations with the US and Japan.
To many people, that possibility would be almost as scary as a nuclearized North Korea. Lest that prospect distort current US negotiating with Pyongyang, with Seoul watching over American shoulders, Americans should focus on the end game - a unified Korea. In contrast to present conditions in which Korea's division enables Seoul and Pyongyang to use America's strategic concerns to manipulate Washington, the leaders of a post-unification Korea will not be able to exploit US worries so easily.
Instead of posturing as endangered halves of a divided nation, post-unification Koreans are likely to confront truly enormous costs for re-assembling their nation. In turn, they are almost certain to be dependent on external assistance, primarily from the US and Japan. This will provide Washington and Tokyo with powerful instruments to shape inter-Korea's post-unification nuclear policies.
In general, the US has handled the nuances of the Korean nuclear question very well. With perseverance, there is an excellent chance that Clinton will be applauded for facilitating a marked reduction in Korean tensions. While it may be difficult to recognize in the heat of concerns about what North Korea may be doing on its nuclear front, in the long run the ability of the US to influence the outcome in Korean affairs should grow enormously, enabling Washington to be fairly relaxed about matters that now seem so urgent. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.