AFTER four days in North Korea, the main question for UN nuclear inspectors has not been answered: How many fuel rods at the five-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon were removed during the three-month shutdown of the reactor in 1989 and used to decant fuel that can be made into plutonium? An answer would require access to the reactor and fuel rods now being removed.
The North Koreans, in keeping with their regular pattern of breaking Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requirements, have not given access to the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Rather, they are attempting to set new conditions - tying inspection of the fuel to bilateral talks with the US over a host of issues ranging from recognition to financial assistance.
Last week US Defense Secretary William Perry expressed satisfaction over IAEA reports that the current refueling of Yongbyon, which began earlier this month without UN inspectors in violation of the NPT, was not being used to divert fuel from the uranium. How meaningful this development is depends on whether or not the North Koreans allow normal monitoring of the fuel rods now being stored in holding tanks.
Should Washington continue playing a waiting game with North Korea, urging it into talks - or take tougher measures such as sanctions?
Proponents of waiting say that the international community has all the time in the world, that North Korea has at the most two nuclear bombs, and that to now cut off even the tenuous ties that the NPT offers would result in the development of seven or eight new devices. This in turn might give South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan the excuse to develop their own weapons; it also further endangers US troops in South Korea. Why not wait to see whether or not North Korea is serious about recent signals that it wants to be less isolated and join the international community?
Proponents of action say that the paranoid regime of Kim Il Sung is going to develop nuclear weapons no matter what and that this is the obvious thrust of their program dating to the 1970s. Letting Pyongyang flout the NPT and the United States is a dangerous international precedent, they argue, and damages the credibility of NPT on the eve of its 1996 renewal. If the North wants to join the international community, there are plenty of opportunities for it to do so, including NPT compliance, which would bring the North a host of benefits. Why hasn't it done so?
One thing the standoff shows is that it is possible to have a nuclear option, a powerful bargaining chip, without ever testing a weapon.