Even with Accord, Questions Remain about North Korea Nuclear Program Frozen, but Sites Still Suspect

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THE AGREEMENT between the United States and North Korea brings within reach a central goal of President Bill Clinton: stopping production of nuclear weapons. But it leaves unanswered a big question: Does North Korea already have nuclear weapons?

Earlier this year, the administration hthreatened to push for United Nations economic sanctions against North Korea to force an answer to that question. Now it is willing to wait at least several months, possibly years.

Clinton hailed the agreement Tuesday as "the first step on the road to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula," which he described as a "longstanding and vital American objective." He did not address the question of whether North Korea had nuclear weapons now.

He said he is sending Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator on the deal, back to Geneva on Friday to sign the final document.

"This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies and good for the safety of the entire world," the president said.

The CIA believes North Korea probably has built and stashed away one or two nuclear weapons. Would the North Koreans use them? Would they threaten to? Such weapons would have little military utility, but even one crude bomb could be an effective terror weapon.

The apparent logic of the change in the U.S. approach is that U.N. sanctions, if imposed at all, would more likely lead to war on the Korean peninsula than make the communist North bend to the will of the international organization.

A better approach, the administration seems to have decided, is to sow the seeds of a new political relationship with the North and hope that trust blooms. If the decades of hostility between North and South, and between Washington and Pyongyang, can be ended, maybe nuclear threats will disappear, too.

In the agreement announced by U.S. negotiators in Geneva on Monday, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program and allow the resumption of international inspections of its nuclear plants, which are suspected of developing nuclear weapons. That would ensure, at least on paper, that the North would make no new bombs.

In exchange, North Korea - which denies that its nuclear work is intended to make bombs - would receive two modern nuclear power plants for the production of electricity. …