NORTH KOREA, suspected of making an atomic bomb, could soon follow Iraq as the next target of United Nations economic sanctions.
The Communist regime in Pyongyang has reached a critical standoff with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN affiliate in Vienna, over its refusal to allow a special IAEA inspection of two nuclear sites.
By Friday, the IAEA's 35-member Board of Governors is expected to decide whether to ask the UN Security Council to impose sanctions, a move North Korea warns could lead to war.
The issue might confront the Clinton administration with a thorny problem, especially since the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea has raised anxiety in Japan and South Korea, both allies of the United States.
IAEA officials say they suspect North Korea has stockpiled more plutonium than it reported to the agency. They base their suspicions on "significant inconsistencies" uncovered by six previous IAEA investigations since May and on US images gathered from intelligence satellite and high-altitude flights over North Korea.
Two sites in North Korea have been singled out for unprecedented "special" inspection by the IAEA. The demand is the first time the IAEA has invoked rules allowing a special inspection of a site not specified by a country.
Criticized for not spotting Iraq's nuclear-bomb project earlier, the IAEA has decided to take a tough stance with North Korea. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea is obliged to report all fissionable nuclear materials. Learning from Iraq
"The case of Iraq showed that we need more and more information," says IAEA spokesman Hans Meyer. Inspectors want to enter two buildings to find out if plutonium is being extracted from spent nuclear fuel.
For three reasons, the 36 governors of the IAEA might hesitate to ask for UN sanctions, however, analysts in Tokyo and Seoul say:
* China, which supports North Korea, might veto any such proposal in the Security Council.
* The North is already so isolated and economically depressed that sanctions may have little effect, and could only raise tensions on the Korean peninsula.
* North Korea may be taking a hard line temporarily in reaction to a US-South Korea military exercise scheduled for mid-March.
Choi Young Choul, South Korea's minister for national unification, said this month the North is using the inspections issue as a "card" to stop the …