IN recent days, movement has occurred in the tense negotiations between the United States and North Korea over its suspected nuclear-weapons program. But does that movement constitute progress or slippage?
Administration officials are insisting that important headway has been made in the talks. They say Pyongyang has agreed, in principle, to let inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency back into their country on the IAEA's own terms.
This means the IAEA will be allowed more than a one-time inspection of North Korea's seven self-declared nuclear facilities, according Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.
``It means access to those seven sites at whatever frequency the IAEA deems necessary,'' Mr. Aspin said at a Monitor breakfast on Jan. 7.
But critics worry that North Korea has not explicitly agreed to allow checks at two undeclared sites that the IAEA believes hold evidence of clandestine production of nuclear materials.
Inspection of these undeclared sites would be crucial to determining the extent of any North Korean atomic-bomb program. But the US is apparently ready to make the major concession of announcing cancellation of the annual Team Spirit military exercise with South Korea without assurance that the secret sites in the north can be checked.
``It looks now as if the US is settling for much less than it demanded six or eight months ago,'' says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
A key US senator on an East Asian tour warned against raised expectations in the North Korean talks.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a news conference in Tokyo on Jan. 8 that the United Nations may soon have to consider economic sanctions against Pyongyang, given the stubbornness with which it has been negotiating.
``I think it's necessary to begin preparing people for stronger steps,'' Senator Nunn said.
ADMINISTRATION officials retort that much of this pessimism is based on confusion. Contrary to some reports, the US has not accepted only a one-time inspection of the seven declared nuclear sites, they say.
What the US and North Koreans have settled on is a term of diplomatic art called ``continuity of safeguards'' at the declared sites, officials say. In the US view, this means the IAEA gets to determine what its inspectors will do. Previously, North Korea had insisted that it be allowed to circumscribe inspectors' activities.
On Friday, the IAEA announced at its Vienna headquarters that it had begun meeting with North Korean officials to discuss the continuation of inspections.
``The US position is the IAEA has to be satisfied,'' Aspin declared at the Monitor breakfast.
Administration officials admit that IAEA activities in regard to the undeclared nuclear sites, which are suspected nuclear waste dumps, have yet to be settled.
But getting the IAEA back into North Korea at all is a major step, they claim. Talks will continue. And giving up Team Spirit, an exercise Pyongyang condemns annually in harsh terms, is hardly a major concession when there are no funds for it in this year's Pentagon budget and few plans have been laid to carry it out.
However, Japan's Ashai Shimbon newspaper said over the weekend that North Korea has in fact attached conditions to its acceptance of IAEA inspections.
Nuclear fuel rod checks would not be allowed under Pyongyang's view of the agreement, according to the Ashai Shimbon.
If true, this is an important caveat: The IAEA considers fuel inspections a crucial way of determining whether plutonium has been diverted for possible weapon use.