IS President Kim Il Sung's two-year effort to thwart full inspection of North Korea's nuclear program through bluff and bravado no more than an elaborate game of poker aimed at winning diplomatic and economic concessions from the United States and its Asian allies?
Or is the North playing a more dangerous game - trying to deflect international sanctions and retain its nuclear-weapons program at all costs, in a bid for power on the Korean peninsula?
Though the evidence is murky, the Clinton administration has developed a flexible strategy that takes account of both the benign and the sinister explanations for North Korea's behavior.
The central point to grasp in untangling the North Korean nuclear imbroglio is that since May 1992, Pyongyang has permitted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection of its key nuclear plants, most significantly, a five-megawatt reactor and plutonium reprocessing plant at Yongbyon.
With these facilities, the North could produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon annually. Currently, these are the only installations in North Korea capable of sustaining a weapons program.
True, the North has played fast and loose with many nonproliferation commitments. It reneged on its pledge to accept bilateral nuclear inspections with South Korea under a joint 1992 denuclearization declaration. It refused IAEA inspections of two key waste sites, whose contents would reveal whether North Korea has produced enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon. It threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, only to back down at the end. It impeded the IAEA from conducting the basic inspections of the Yongbyon facilities, only to allow them in the end. It recently withdrew fuel from Yongbyon in the absence of IAEA inspectors.
Nonetheless, under US pressure backed by the threat of United Nations sanctions, the North has permitted inspection of its key plants at Yongbyon for two years. Indeed, even its current infraction of withdrawing fuel, though a clear violation of IAEA rules, has not undermined IAEA monitoring of North Korean nuclear activity.
Moreover, under a series of ``redlines'' set by the administration in June 1993 as conditions for further talks - and for avoiding UN sanctions - North Korea has refrained from producing more plutonium at Yongbyon and has also preserved evidence to enable the IAEA to determine how much plutonium it has produced.
Thus, since May 1992, the Kim Il Sung government has deprived itself of the use of what are apparently the ``crown jewels'' of its nuclear-weapons effort.
This behavior is hardly consistent with that of a nation bent on obtaining nuclear arms at all costs. The North's avoidance of steps that might irretrievably foreclose the bargaining process with Washington is further evidence that it is playing poker, not desperately seeking nuclear arms.
Still, the overall picture is ambiguous. The North continues to operate the Yongbyon reactor, building larger accumulations of plutonium in its fuel - enough for four or five bombs, according to Defense Secretary William Perry.
Pyongyang has also completed a second reprocessing line at the Yongbyon plutonium separation plant that could enable it to accelerate the extraction of plutonium.
This raises the possibility of a North Korean ``break out,'' in which it could suddenly reject all nuclear monitoring and obtain several nuclear weapons in as little as six months.
Thus while the North is probably bargaining, it has preserved and even enhanced the option of becoming a nuclear power.
Since June 1993, the Clinton administration has sought to put Pyongyang to the test by bringing it to the bargaining table and seeing whether it is, indeed, prepared to trade its nuclear option for benefits from others.
In so doing, Washington has made numerous tactical concessions, some of them significant.
For example, in June 1993 the White House declared that before serious bargaining could begin, in addition to adhering to the various redlines, Pyongyang would have to hold substantive talks with Seoul on the issue of bilateral inspections, and with the IAEA on special inspections of the two waste sites at Yongbyon.
Washington also planned at that time to confine the bargaining with Pyongyang to security issues. Later, the administration made the exchange of nuclear envoys between North and South Korea a precondition for talks.
Over the course of the past year, however, the administration has dropped all of these non-redline preconditions and has agreed, at Pyongyang's insistence, to widen the agenda for the talks to include issues of economic aid and the normalization of diplomatic relations.
Special inspections, which the US sought to enforce through UN sanctions until the North threatened to leave the NPT in 1993, are now on the bargaining table.
Though these shifts were clear retreats, they have served the larger US interest of demonstrating to the international community that the administration is serious about pursuing a negotiated solution. With China, South Korea, and Japan reluctant to implement sanctions, Washington had little choice but to give ground.
The administration has not, however, wavered on its bedrock demands that the North not enlarge its plutonium stockpile until talks end. Each time the North has tested these rules the administration has moved swiftly to obtain Security Council condemnation; the North has backed down.
Washington has recently taken important steps to make the threat of sanctions more credible, despite the risk of war these might entail, by bolstering South Korean military capabilities.
Thus, the administration has also prepared for a North Korean attempt to break out of current nuclear monitoring arrangements, should President Kim's demand for talks prove to be a feint.
With the critical US-North Korean talks near, the North Korean challenge may now be approaching its denouement. The Clinton administration has successfully parried Pyongyang's thrusts for two years, while holding its nuclear arsenal in check.
Whether North Korea's game is poker or power, Washington is ready for the next round. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.