THE Clinton administration now believes that North Korea has no intention of ever allowing international inspectors free access to its nuclear facilities, and US officials are thus preparing to push for some sort of international economic sanctions on the secretive Pyongyang regime.
Continued withdrawal of fuel rods from a main nuclear reactor in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has convinced all but die-hard optimists in the United States that North Korea is desperately covering up evidence of past diversion of weapons-grade plutonium. (North Korean defectors speak out, Page 7.)
``Clearly there isn't a lot of time for the North Koreans to do what is necessary'' to avoid censure, a US official says.
Whether attempts to punish North Korea for its actions will be a concerted international effort is another question. China sounds leery of approving United Nations economic strictures on its erstwhile ally, as it has throughout the 15-month battle between North Korea and the IAEA. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang told a news conference yesterday, ``We do not favor resorting to means that might sharpen the confrontation.''
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China could veto any attempt at UN-approved sanctions. So could Russia, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday he wants a conference on the Korean problem before imposing sanctions.
The US, South Korea, and Japan will hold a high-level strategy meeting in New York today. One option might be a series of bilateral restrictions on North Korea that do not require a Security Council vote, such as a cutoff of money flowing from North Korean natives in Japan to relatives on the mainland.
Throughout the North Korea standoff, it has been difficult to ascertain whether progress was being made, whether North Korea has decided to defy the world or give in grudgingly in hopes of obtaining outside economic aid. But the current crisis, involving a reactor at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, is, in fact, the serious turn of events experts have been worrying about for months.
The IAEA suspects that this reactor was completely refueled in 1989, a move that would have allowed North Korea to reprocess enough plutonium from withdrawn fuel rods to produce one or two nuclear weapons. The North Koreans, for their part, insist that only a few damaged control rods were withdrawn at the time in question.
IAEA inspectors have identified about 300 fuel rods they would like to look at to determine if isotopic reactions have occurred evenly throughout the reactor core - indicating a complete refueling. But last weekend, North Korea began double-time withdrawal of the reactor's estimated 8,000 rods.
In addition, as the North Koreans place them in storage, they are ``trying to scramble fuel rods to keep the IAEA from seeing adjacent rods,'' notes Thomas Cochran, a nuclear expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Such scrambling effectively ruins the IAEA's opportunity to find the rods it wants to measure.
As of this writing, the rod withdrawal may already have progressed far enough to preclude any definitive conclusion as to whether North Korea already possesses weapons-grade fissile material.
Considering the seriousness of this move and the implication that Pyongyang has something to hide, ``at this point, we don't have any other choice but to pursue sanctions,'' says Jon Wolfsthal, a senior analyst at the Arms Control Association.
But Mr. Wolfsthal notes that there is a second IAEA concern that complicates US decisionmaking. While North Korea may have effectively prevented prying into its past, it has not yet ended the hope of tracking its nuclear future. Withdrawn fuel rods are being placed in storage where IAEA inspectors and cameras can see them - ensuring that they aren't yet being mined for their estimated 25 kilograms of plutonium.
If the US pursues sanctions North Korea might drop all pretense and begin further plutonium reprocessing. What's more important: knowing for sure about Pyongyang's current arsenal or taking a chance on preventing further stockpile growth?
The fuel rods do not have to cool long before reprocessing can begin.
``We're all holding our breath that they're not just going to take those fuel rods, start shipping them to a reprocessing plant, and tell the IAEA `bye-bye,' '' says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.