IN the delicate dance of negotiations with North Korea over allowing inspection of its nuclear facilities, the main goal of the United States now seems to be to prevent further work that might lead to diversion of bomb-grade plutonium.
The US and its allies are still keenly interested in learning the history of Pyongyang's past nuclear activities and whether enough plutonium was diverted for the making of one or two atomic bombs.
But after the visit to North Korea by former President Carter and a reaffirmed commitment by the US to seek gradual sanctions against Pyongyang at the United Nations, the White House appears to be primarily concerned with curbing the growth of a North Korean arsenal. (Tokyo and Seoul react to Carter visit, Page 3.)
``The objective [of sanctions] clearly is to deter the North Koreans from causing the situation to further deteriorate,'' said Robert Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
President Carter's visit last week held out the hope that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung would agree to a freeze on certain nuclear activities.
The US wants such a freeze to include deferral of any reprocessing of fuel rods recently withdrawn from an experimental nuclear reactor; no reactor refueling; and continued continuity of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
North Korean agreement with this list would cause a halt in US efforts to obtain phased sanctions in the UN Security Council. It would also launch a third round of high-level US-North Korea talks about aid and diplomatic ties.
The White House flatly denies that Carter carried a message from President Clinton to the leaders of the North Korean regime. But Assistant Secretary Gallucci said he was not surprised that Pyongyang took the opportunity of a purportedly private visit by Carter to make some sort of diplomatic move.
On the roller-coaster North Korea situation, ``I'm getting harder and harder to surprise, I think, as time goes by,'' he said.
Carter's visit was an opportunity for both sides to step back a bit from previous positions while still saving face, noted private analysts. If North Korea is truly looking for a way to avoid sanctions, Carter's visit might turn out to have been an inspired bit of diplomatic sleight of hand - despite the fact that the ex-president apparently mangled US policy in statements in North Korea and generally drew some exasperated sniping from White House aides.
Stopping future plutonium reprocessing in North Korea is the most important possible step the US and its allies can take for East Asian security, notes Arms Control Association North Korea expert Jon Wolfsthal. ``If we know the future program is not proceeding we can take our time learning about past activities,'' Mr. Wolfsthal says.
Of course, North Korea may be using the visit to do what it has done so well throughout the standoff over inspections of its nuclear facilities - play for time. If that's the case, ``we shouldn't let ourselves get sidetracked,'' Wolfsthal says.
The US options would then be to proceed with its phased sanctions, in which new North Korean nuclear steps would bring further isolation - or it could contemplate military action.
US officials continue to say no actions have been ruled out. In a recent newspaper opinion article, former Bush administration national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said one practical military move would be to bomb North Korea's nuclear reprocessing facilities before they receive fuel-rod shipments.
Some other analysts say such forcible nuclear nonproliferation may not be worth the risk, considering that with atomic-bomb technology now over 50 years old proliferation is inevitable.
``Nuclear weapons capabilities are proliferating, and the United States will have to deal with some of the new nuclear powers as nuclear adversaries,'' writes RAND Corp. analyst Marc Dean Millot in the current Washington Quarterly.
Morever, by paying so much attention to nonproliferation, US policy prevents realistic thinking about proliferation's consequences, Mr. Millot claims.
The Korean crisis is finally beginning to convince the US military that it needs to seriously plan the complex conventional weapons capability needed to fight nuclear-armed regional aggressors, Millot says in an interview. It is also sparking analysis of possible political-military consequences of regional nuclear weapons. US nuclear containment of North Korean, similar to that carried out in the cold war against the Soviet Union, may be the only practical US option.
``That game of manipulating a threat of nuclear war to get political benefit is not one we are unfamiliar with,'' Millot says.
The worst solution for the US would be to somehow foster an impression that a proliferator or potential proliferator is continuing to comply with world non-nuclear norms when that is not the case, according to Millot. ``Unfortunately, elements of this approach can be found in the Clinton administration's dealings with North Korea,'' he writes.
Allowing the nuclear status of states such as North Korea to remain ambiguous amounts to pretending that they are not nuclear powers. Such an attitude might be judged as a kind of diplomatic avoidance, according to Millot, that allows the proliferator to continue work in the dark and discourages the US itself from taking actions needed to deal with the military consequences of proliferation.