Caution Flags Still Out on N. Korea

Pyongyang gave up little in agreeing to `freeze' its nuclear program for talks with the US

WHEN President Clinton announced at a quickly called news conference on Wednesday that North Korea had agreed to freeze its nuclear program, he summed up the importance of the move this way: ``These developments mark not a solution to the problem, but they do mark a new opportunity to find a solution.''

In other words, when it comes to preventing nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, the United States and its allies are not out of the woods yet.

The North's acceptance of US conditions for a third round of high-level talks may have relieved tensions for now. The alternative - a North Korean nuclear program unabashedly unconstrained by international inspectors - would make the US and other nations extremely nervous.

But key aspects of the long-running inspection standoff between North Korea and much of the rest of the world remain unresolved. It is still not clear, for instance, whether the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to take steps to reconstruct whether North Korea has produced bomb-level amounts of plutonium in the past.

And by saying it will ``freeze'' its self-described peaceful nuclear program pending resumption of negotiations, North Korea has gained some political leverage from something it would have largely had to do anyway, at least for now.

Take the issue of fuel rods recently withdrawn from an experimental nuclear reactor at a complex in Yongbyon. The North has promised it will not reprocess these rods to extract further amounts of plutonium. Yet the recently withdrawn rods are still radioactively hot and must be allowed to cool in storage ponds before any reprocessing can begin.

``They haven't really given up anything yet,'' says a consultant who has worked on Pentagon war-contingency planning for East Asia.

Thus, the crucial test of North Korea's intentions will come after the third round of talks has progressed. North Korean officials confirmed on June 23 that they expect these negotiations to be held in Geneva beginning in the first week of July.

To call the previous two rounds of US-North Korea meetings ``talks'' is really a misnomer, according to US officials. Delegations have arrived in the same room, shaken hands, and exchanged pieces of paper outlining prearranged positions. Sometimes, things warm up enough so that the papers are read aloud.

If North Koreans complain that the third round has gone badly, and then IAEA inspectors still in the country are threatened with expulsion or condemned for some action, the US-North Korea standoff will quickly be right back at crisis stage. And Pyongyang will have bought valuable time for fuel-rod cooling and other clandestine bomb work.

Senator Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has predicted just such an event will happen. ``There is no basis in history to believe more talk and more delays will limit North Korea's nuclear ambitions,'' he said.

Former President Jimmy Carter, the man whose quasi-private diplomacy brought about the nuclear breakthrough, disagrees. In essence, Mr. Carter has said that all North Korean leader Kim Il Sung wants is respect and recognition from the West, so he can save face in his country and obtain much-needed economic aid.

The question of looking into past actions will be one acid test of Pyongyang's intentions. US officials say that they interpret North Korea's agreement to fully implement international inspection requirements as meaning that the Kim regime will accept inspections meant to check how much plutonium has already been separated.

US officials suspect North Korea has enough fissile material for one or two bombs, and in the past they have tried to visit two suspected nuclear-waste sites in an effort to prove this assertion. Pyongyang reacted vehemently to the IAEA's attempts to inspect these sites - indeed, North Korea's prickliness over these so-called ``special inspections'' is one major reason the standoff reached crisis stage in the first place.

Blocking any further reprocessing is perhaps the most important US goal, however. Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey said that North Korea could quickly obtain plutonium for five additional weapons if reprocessing begins anew.

From a diplomatic point of view, this week's North Korea-US agreement may prove two things:

r For a nation derided as ``The Hermit Kim-dom,'' supposedly the most isolated in the world, North Korea is pretty good at high-stakes geopolitics.

r Pyongyang may well have been rattled by the US move for economic sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. Behind the scenes, China may have pressured Kim toward accommodation by hinting that it would not block a sanctions effort. In fact, Clinton referred to China as an ally on this issue.

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