IN recent days, diplomacy regarding the world's nuclear inspection standoff with North Korea has resembled exercise on a rowing machine: lots of motion but no perceptible forward progress.
US officials plan to meet today to consider Pyongyang's latest counteroffer, which would allow international inspectors access to some declared nuclear power sites in return for Western aid and political recognition. All indications are they will find it insufficient.
Though there may be some budge in its position, North Korea apparently has not addressed the issue of entry to two disputed nuclear sites near Yong- byon. North Korea also has yet to offer to reopen talks with South Korea, another key Western demand.
There are both ``good things'' and ``some difficulties'' in North Korea's latest positions, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in Jerusalem on Dec. 4.
Pessimistic US officials say North Korea has no intention of ever allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to see its most sensitive nuclear installations. The North Koreans are just buying time with negotiations while they produce nuclear weapons through a crash program, according to this view.
Others say the isolated, paranoid regime in Pyongyang is simply pursuing what it sees as survival in its own clumsy way. North Korea wants aid and trade from the West and is trying to strike the best deal it can, these officials and experts say.
North Korean domestic politics is partly to blame for the nuclear inspection crisis, says Peter Hayes, a senior analyst at Nautilus Pacific Research who has visited the country four times in the last two years. Kim Jong Il, son of aged North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung, may be trying to strengthen his hand for the succession crisis that will surely follow his father's passing.
By stirring up an external crisis with the West, the younger Kim can divert attention from desperate internal economic circumstances, at least for a while.
There may be ways of ``massaging'' the standoff over access to the two disputed sites, Mr. Hayes says - perhaps by allowing the IAEA to take soil samples from nearby. But it is not clear whether the US will accept such a compromise, given the strong stance it has taken on IAEA access so far.
In recent weeks, North Korea has talked darkly of the consequences of failed negotiations, accusing the United States and the West of pushing it toward war. President Clinton has attempted to calm concerns of a renewed Korean conflict, and, indeed, Hayes says such rhetoric is bluster. ``I don't think North Korea wants a war any more than anyone else does,'' he says.
F it does not, it certainly has not been acting like it, another expert says. Since the early 1980s, North Korea has quadrupled the firepower it has deployed near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with South Korea, says Bob Gaskin, a retired colonel who is now an analyst for Business Executives for National Security. The size of its active-duty forces have risen to over 1.1 million, as opposed to 633,000 active-duty personnel in the south.
Two-thirds of the North Korean Army is within 60 miles of the DMZ, making the military standoff on the peninsula a hair-trigger balance. If the trigger goes off, the roughly 36,000 US troops would probably fight alongside their South Korean allies until US reinforcements could arrive or US airpower could stop North Korea on the ground. In reality, South Korea will eventually be able to shoulder its own defense, Mr. Gaskin says.
``The US public has essentially been kept in the dark that we are committed to getting in a major war as a matter of policy to defend a nation that has double the population of the North and an incredibly larger GNP,'' he says.
Just because North Korea's military is large does not mean it is good. There are reports that the country's Air Force still contains biplanes, and that there is hardly any fuel for training missions.
But the South Korean capital of Seoul is so close to the DMZ that it is within range of artillery fire from the North. US and South Korean forces would certainly prevail in any new Korean War, but Seoul would undoubtedly take a lot of damage in the process, says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak at a meeting with reporters last week.
The US is not preparing to send any more force to the Korean peninsula. But US troops there operate at a high state of alert. ``Remember, there has never been a real end to the Korean War - only an armistice,'' General McPeak says.