IN Japan, the recent nuclear agreement between the United States and North Korea has brought sighs of relief. There is new confidence here that a confrontation with Pyongyang's communist regime can be avoided.
It is much less clear, however, that anyone is really serious about building two top-of-the-line nuclear reactors for North Korea, as the accord stipulates. One expert says it probably is not possible. A government official says it may never happen.
In the agreement signed on Oct. 21, the US promised to head an international consortium that would provide two light-water reactors (LWR) and also guaranteed alternative supplies of energy during the decade it will take to build them. It also agreed to move toward full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, an action that could end the North's isolation and help its troubled economy.
North Korea agreed to stop building two reactors of an older design that are less complicated but produce greater quantities of weapons-grade plutonium.
The North also agreed not to reprocess a batch of spent radioactive fuel from the single reactor it has managed to complete. Experts estimate that reprocessing the material could generate enough weapons-grade plutonium for about half-dozen atomic bombs.The North did not agree to ship the fuel someplace else, as some nations had sought.
About five years down the line, after the North has judged that significant progress toward the LWRs has taken place, the country will allow international nuclear inspectors to see two sites it has barred them from scrutinizing for 19 months.
A government official involved in North Korea policy acknowledges the criticism, voiced in Japan and elsewhere, that the pact lets the North keep its batch of spent fuel and delays the inspection of the controversial sites. But, he says, speaking on condition of anonymity, the agreement is a viable solution to a problem that could well have forced a confrontation. He also anticipates that Japan will resume direct negotiations with North Korea by the end of this year or in early 1995.
But Ryukichi Imai, a former nuclear engineer who served as Japan's ambassador to Kuwait, Mexico, and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, is skeptical about the feasibility of building the LWRs in a country as underdeveloped as North Korea. ``The US government must know magic of some sort if they really want to make it happen,'' he says.
Such sophisticated reactors require electrical and industrial infrastructure that North Korea does not have and that cannot be bought for $4 billion, Dr. Imai argues.
Given the state of North Korea's nuclear technology, he adds, building LWRs there is like trading in a bicycle with training wheels for a sports car.
The government official agrees that it would have been better to offer some other technology, but says the North Koreans insisted on the light-water reactors. The agreement ``is the mechanism by which North Korea gets foreign aid without losing their face.''
The best feature of the deal, he says, is the decade-long framework for building the light-water reactors, a complex process that will force North Korea out of its isolation. It remains to be seen, he adds, whether ``we see the actual installing of the light-water reactors or not, but in-between North Korea is bound to increase its associations with the external world, including the US, Japan, and South Korea.''
The official denies that those three nations are hoping that all this contact with the outside world will bring down the North Korean regime, an expectation attributed to US officials in recent press accounts. ``We are not sure what will come out of it.''