THE issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions is not as captivating as it was early this summer, when US television crews converged on Seoul to chronicle United States air strikes on the North or even nuclear confrontation.
Instead, the US and North Korea have resorted to words. Talks have produced progress toward a comprehensive settlement of the issue, and the two sides will meet again on Sept. 23 in Geneva.
Even so, the top US negotiator on the North Korean issue, speaking in Tokyo yesterday, was cautious about the final outcome. Ambassador Robert Gallucci said ``several outstanding, important, but unresolved issues'' remain to be settled before international concerns about North Korea's possible nuclear-weapons program are alleviated.
For a year and a half, North Korea has sparred with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN entity that monitors compliance with a multilateral treaty designed to control the spread of nuclear weapons. The major area of dispute has been the IAEA's attempt to make ``special inspections'' of two sites in North Korea.
Insisting that its program has been peaceful, the North called the IAEA's demand a violation of its sovereignty. It withdrew from the IAEA in May and has at times threatened to back out from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But following a visit to North Korea by former President Carter in June, the standoff eased. An August meeting in Geneva yielded an agreement in principle from the North to return to the NPT, stop construction of two nuclear reactors that would generate large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, and halt any reprocessing of radioactive material.
The US agreed to organize a multinational effort to provide the North with nuclear-energy technology that is much less capable of generating plutonium and to pursue better relations with the country. The two have since held further talks on these topics.
Nonetheless, questions remain. The North's top nuclear negotiator, Kang Sok-Ju, said after the August meeting that the North still refuses to accede to the special inspections. And the two sides are at odds over which countries will provide the North with safer ``light water'' reactors.
``It is possible,'' Mr. Gallucci said on Japanese television last night, that North Korea ``will not accept special inspections, and if that happens the car will go nowhere.'' He added that the three countries most involved in the issue - the US, Japan, and South Korea - would then return to the United Nations Security Council to pursue sanctions against North Korea.
The North has also rejected any South Korean role in the light-water reactor project. ``Now, as in the past,'' the envoy said, North Korean ``ideas for arranging for this project have not seemed to us to take into account fundamental political or financial realities.'' Gallucci insisted South Korea would have to play a key role in the project.
Gallucci also addressed criticisms that the talks so far have seemed more concerned with meeting the North's demands than with clarifying questions about whether the country has tried to develop nuclear weapons. ``There is no imbalance here in terms of what we are agreeing to do on our part to achieve the outcome that the international community requires,'' he argued. The matter of North Korea's nuclear history ``must be settled,'' he continued. ``But we have to deal with other matters also.'' In order to get the North to stop construction of its graphite reactors, he said, ``We are going to have to assist [North Korea] in alternative energy.''
``We can be somewhat flexible as to exactly when in the settlement process the inspections are conducted,'' Gallucci said.