THE simmering North Korea nuclear inspection problem has worsened in recent days into a full boiling crisis.
With the collapse of negotiations aimed at coaxing North Korea to allow full inspections of its nuclear sites, the United States and its South Korean ally are basically back where they were last March.
That's when the Communist government in Pyongyang first said it would walk out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rather than submit to unfettered prying by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a United Nations organization.
North Korean officials are now indulging in typically angry rhetoric, threatening that Seoul may turn into a ``sea of fire,'' and so forth. While the situation is not really yet on the brink of war, it is clear that for the US and its allies diplomatic sticks will replace carrots, at least for now.
The situation is ``serious, but it's certainly not a time to be hysterical,'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a television interview over the weekend. ``It's a time to be steady, to move very deliberately.''
Yesterday, the IAEA's 35-member board of governors voted to refer North Korea's refusal to allow complete inspections to the UN Security Council. The board, however, pointedly did not recommend stronger action, leaving open the possibility that North Korea may yet be able to defuse the crisis by allowing inspectors back in.
The Security Council, for its part, could decide to recommend economic sanctions against the Pyongyang regime. The US has warned it may push for economic sanctions to further isolate the already hermit-like North Koreans.
China, North Korea's only real friend, could veto any UN move to impose sanctions if it so chose. With the US and China currently disputing the latter's human rights policies, such a veto is a real possibility, according to some analysts.
But US officials publicly say they think China won't block tough action, as long as all diplomatic possibilities appear exhausted.
``China has the same interest that we have in having a nonnuclear [Korean] peninsula,'' said Secretary Christopher.
One indication of China's position was Monday's vote of the IAEA's board of governors, in which the Chinese representative abstained, along with four other nations. Only Libya voted against the resolution.
MEANWHILE a quiet drumbeat of military preparation continues. South Korea said yesterday that it would restart preparations for the annual ``Team Spirit'' joint military exercise with US forces. Cancellation of Team Spirit, which has infuriated North Korea whenever it is held, had been one of the incentives dangled by US diplomats in a recent dialogue with the North.
South Korean President Kim Young-Sam also announced that plans would precede apace for deployment of Patriot anti-missile missiles around Seoul. An artillery shell's throw from the north-south demilitarized zone, Seoul would be highly vulnerable to Scud missile attack if hostilities did develop.
Reports from the region indicated that at least three dozen Patriot launchers were likely to be sent from US stocks, another move that has rankled North Korea.
Meanwhile, President Clinton sent the South Korean leadership a letter reaffirming the US defense commitment. The letter indicated that the US would consider any invasion of South Korean territory to be as serious as an invasion of the US itself, and would respond accordingly.
In a trip to South Korea last year, Mr. Clinton warned the north of devastating consequences if it ever attacked its southern neighbor.