BY agreeing to reopen part of its nuclear program to international inspectors, North Korea may avoid threatened United Nations economic sanctions without giving up what many in Washington now believe already exists: a nascent North Korean nuclear-weapons arsenal.
That does not mean that the latest twist in the long standoff between Pyongyang and much of the rest of the globe over the nature of its nuclear research is irrelevant. As the impasse has dragged on for months, and more and more intelligence has piled up on Washington desks, the goal of Clinton administration policy appears to have quietly changed from preventing development of North Korean atomic weapons to containing their number.
United States rhetoric about Pyongyang's suspected program is markedly different today from that of a few months ago. In November, President Clinton said North Korea ``cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb.'' Last month, however, Defense Secretary William Perry conceded at his Senate confirmation hearing that North Korea might already have such a weapon. Mr. Perry said his biggest concern was stopping a Pyongyang effort ``to develop what may be dozens of nuclear bombs.''
In this context, resumption of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of seven of North Korea's declared nuclear-research sites is important. Such inspections could determine if more plutonium is being clandestinely diverted to weapons production.
``This appears to be a step in the right direction,'' White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said of Pyongyang's move on Feb. 15. ``We hope that North Korea follows through on it.''
According to the IAEA, agreement on renewed access for its inspectors came out of the blue, after months of frustration in which negotiations went nowhere. North Korea had continually resisted IAEA efforts to set the time and nature of its checks on declared nuclear sites.
Such inspections are part and parcel of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and are intended to track the production of fissile materials. North Korea has threatened to withdraw from the NPT, but has yet to do so.
Per North Korea's agreement, IAEA inspectors may return to the Korean peninsula as early as next week, to change film in monitoring cameras and check seals placed earlier on suspected sites.
By coming to terms with the IAEA, North Korea averted a potential showdown on Feb. 21. On that date, the IAEA was scheduled to meet to consider the North Korean situation and was likely to declare that safeguards there had been broken.
This declaration, in turn, was expected to spur calls in the UN for economic sanctions against the desperately poor Pyongyang regime. Military tensions on the heavily militarized Korean peninsula would then be likely to increase.
North Korea has now stepped back from that brink. But throughout the extended wrangle over the country's threatened withdrawal from NPT safeguards, North Korean officials have shown a genius for giving just enough at just the right time - and then obfuscating their actions. Few analysts believe that Pyongyang is done raising negotiation obstacles.
``You will hear more about this, I guarantee,'' said Kongdon Oh, a RAND Corp. Korean analyst.
Dr. Oh believes that cancellation of the annual Team Spirit military exercise between South Korea and the US is a major North Korean goal. As the standoff between the IAEA and North Korea had deepened in recent weeks, the US had begun making preparations for Team Spirit, despite the fact that there is little money for the war games in the Pentagon budget.
``They will feel rewarded'' if Team Spirit is now cancelled, Oh says.
A major outstanding negotiation problem is the question of inspection of suspected nuclear sites that are not included in North Korea's list of seven declared facilities. An IAEA attempt to visit suspected nuclear-waste dumps helped begin the whole North Korean inspection impasse. Pyongyang is still denying IAEA the capability to carry out surprise, snap inspections.
Sticks and carrots
The US approach to the North Korean crisis has been criticized by some analysts as both too soft and too inconsistent. At his nomination hearing, Perry was pressed enough to emphasize that there were sticks as well as carrots in the North Korea policy.
Yet the US may well have no alternative to quiet diplomacy. As a recent RAND study of the North Korean situation points out, a strategy of pure ``sticks,'' including tough talks about military pressure, would likely be opposed by US allies in the region such as South Korea and Japan.
A strategy of pure ``carrots,'' on the other hand, is unlikely to work, according to the study. Patience, plus a mix of carrots and a dangling of sticks, might be the best approach.
``North Korea seems determined to acquire nuclear weapons,'' judges the RAND paper.
Indeed, it has probably already acquired a few. Many Western intelligence analyses now judge that North Korea has at least the capability to quickly assemble a crude nuclear device.
This estimate is based on the widespread belief that through its stonewalling, North Korea has managed to divert a small amount of plutonium from its nuclear-power research. In a closed, Stalinist nation, it is unlikely international inspectors will ever be able to find this material unaided.
This reality appears to be behind the change in US rhetoric about the program. ``We're recognizing that we can't do anything about the material that has already been produced,'' says a Pentagon consultant.