WHILE North Korea's rhetoric has grown strident, the United States does not appear overwrought by the deadlock in negotiations over the Communist state's alleged nuclear weapons program.
Not that the Clinton administration isn't eager to resume the talks that collapsed in Berlin on April 20: It is now awaiting a response from Pyongyang to an invitation to continue the negotiations at a higher level in Geneva.
But the main US concern is that Pyongyang abide by an October agreement to put its nuclear program on ice. As long as the program stays frozen, Washington is ready to indulge North Korean reluctance to accept a US plan to replace its nuclear reactors with safer units built and mainly financed by its enemy, South Korea.
''The current circumstances, with the freeze in place, is not one that we have to immediately disrupt,'' says Robert Gallucci, the chief US negotiator.
The Clinton administration has made it clear that its patience will evaporate instantly if Pyongyang reactivates its nuclear program. Should that happen, President Clinton would face a similar crisis as last year: a possible confrontation with North Korea.
The US says that it will ask the United Nations to slap economic sanctions on North Korea if the regime of Kim Il Sung makes good on threats to refuel a 5 megawatt reactor believed to have produced enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear bombs. North Korea has repeated that it will view UN sanctions as an ''act of war.''
''We declared more than once that we would regard sanctions as a declaration of war against us. Dialogue is incompatible with military threats,'' the official North Korean newspaper Rodong declared last week.
US officials have made it clear that because of North Korea's belligerent stance, any decision to seek UN sanctions will be backed up by the dispatch of up to 10,000 soldiers to reinforce the 37,000 US troops posted in South Korea. The US has already deployed Patriot antimissile batteries in South Korea.
''We are prepared to do what is necessary to deal with ... any threats of military action that arise,'' Mr. Gallucci says.
The first straw
Tensions first erupted last year, when North Korea refused to allow international inspections of key nuclear facilities. US officials believe North Korea has the potential to begin producing in four years enough plutonium for 30 nuclear bombs per year.
The crisis was defused when North Korea agreed to halt and eventually dismantle its nuclear program. In exchange for the freeze, a US-led consortium is to arrange the financing and construction of two light-water reactors valued at some $4 billion. They are to replace North Korea's atomic plant and two facilities now under construction.
Until the new reactors are built, Washington is providing Pyongyang with fuel for conventional power plants. The sides are also to take what many see as a first step toward formal ties by opening liaison offices in the other's capital.
The Berlin talks should have finalized the nuclear arrangements. But North Korea broke them off over US insistence that the reactors be built by a contractor from South Korea.
Gallucci says North Korea would prefer ''anyone's reactors other than South Korea's reactors.'' But he adds that only South Korea has the ability to build light-water reactors and the willingness to provide the bulk of the financing.
Experts say there is more at stake for North Korea than simply accepting South Korean technology. The deal would represent a major political loss of face for Pyongyang. Acceding to its foe's leading role in the project would acknowledge its superior know-how.
More important, the ruling Communists would see the deal as giving South Korea a beachhead from which to guide the peninsula to reunification.
''The North Koreans are after light-water reactors on terms they consider politically acceptable,'' notes Selig Harrison, a Korea expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Many analysts warn of other flaws in the administration policy, including the threat of sanctions. They say that it will be extremely difficult to win support for sanctions from North Korea's communist neighbor, China. South Korea also appears reluctant to back sanctions. Despite the state of war that has persisted since the truce that ended their 1950 to '53 conflict, South Korea has become North Korea's third-largest trading partner.
''Sanctions are unproductive and won't work,'' say Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.