IF the new United States-North Korea nuclear accord reveals any larger lesson about the world's efforts to halt the spread of atomic weapons, it may be this: Nonproliferation is hard. Really, really hard.
That is not exactly a profound new insight. But perhaps it is worth remembering, since President Clinton has approved the signing today of an agreement with Pyongyang that even proponents of the accord admit is far from perfect.
Some Republican leaders have denounced the deal in scathing terms, calling it riddled with US concessions. Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas pointed to provisions providing North Korea with billions of dollars worth of oil and new nuclear reactors, and he said the agreement ``sounds more like a one-way street than prudent diplomacy.''
US officials defend the pact as the best that can be obtained with the insular and enigmatic North Korean regime. Officials say that if the North Koreans truly want better economic and political relations with the rest of the world, they will have to live up to the deal, to the letter.
``The North Koreans are well aware that if they wish to move down that road, they are going to have to reconcile themselves with the international nonproliferation community,'' said the chief US negotiator of the accord, Robert Gallucci, at a White House briefing this week.
The agreement's basics hold that North Korea will freeze its nuclear program and live up to its commitments as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In return it will receive diplomatic links with the US and a package of aid, including some $4 billion worth of oil for its supine economy, and two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors of Western design to replace its current but much older nuclear-power program.
Some experts worry about what North Korea is not required to do under the terms of the agreement. For one thing, special inspections of two suspected nuclear waste-dump sites can be put off for years. These dump sites could provide crucial information about possible past plutonium separation, and thus the state of any current North Korean atomic- weapons arsenal.
For another, Pyongyang will be able to hold onto irradiated fuel rods recently withdrawn from a power reactor until construction on the new US-brokered reactors is well underway. These rods could be reprocessed quickly into weapons-grade plutonium by North Korea, although it is likely the US would detect this diversion immediately.
In addition, the light-water reactors North Korea will receive will produce themselves an estimated 400 kilograms (882 pounds) of plutonium a year - leaving a danger of clandestine weapon production even after the deal is fully implemented.
THIS fissile material would not technically be weapons-grade, and it would produce only low-yield weapons. Still, the new reactors ``wouldn't eliminate the proliferation problem. They would just reduce it,'' points out David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Finally, some experts worry about the message the whole pact will send to other potential nuclear proliferators. This message might be summed up as: Sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Cheat on it. Then the US will give you billions of dollars worth of bribes to rejoin.
``Now you're going to have to give people lots of stuff just to live up to their treaty obligations,'' worries one Pentagon nuclear consultant.
Actually, the new deal requires North Korea to go well past its NPT treaty obligations, point out other experts. Under NPT terms Pyongyang would have been within its rights to retain its own proliferation-friendly reactors, as long as international inspectors could check them. It would have been able to retain the thousands of fuel rods that pose such a danger of plutonium diversion.
And while it is true that inspection of the suspected dump sites has long been a top US priority, postponing these checks won't necessarily hurt, claim treaty proponents. The North Koreans won't be able scour them clean enough to hide past activity.
Things the US wanted to happen right way, such as an end to construction of North Korea's indigenous reactors, will happen in a timely manner under treaty terms, they add.
``There is some concern that it is going to take some time for North Korea to come back into full compliance with the NPT,'' says Jon Wolfsthal, senior research analyst at the Arms Control Association. ``But this was a choice of compliance someway down the road, or no compliance.''