Last Remaining Hot Spot of the Cold War Asked to Cool Its Desire for Nuclear Weapons International Pressure Mounts on North Korea to Allow outside Inspections of Its Nuclear Facilities and Stop Any Weapons Program

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THE United States is watching and waiting as North Korea weighs one of the biggest decisions of its national life.

One of the last bastions of communist rule, North Korea has taken dramatic steps during the past several months to break out of its self-imposed diplomatic isolation. Its overtures have extended even to New York, where the US and North Korea last month held their highest-level talks since the Korean War.

But hopeful signs of thaw in the heavily fortified Korean peninsula will mean little unless North Korea bows to international demands to open its nuclear facilities to outside inspection and dismantle its alleged nuclear-weapons program. Refusal could add to tensions in East Asia and fuel nuclear proliferation concerns. Acceptance could cool off the last remaining hot spot of the cold war.

Nuclear concessions would also facilitate what one senior US official describes as a "broader and deeper dialogue" that, in time, could lead to normal relations between old Cold War adversaries.

"If North Korea is serious about the nuclear issue, we can begin a more serious dialogue on other issues," says the official.

In addition to nuclear weapons, the US would like to talk to North Korea about terrorism, hostile Korean propaganda directed at the US and South Korea, and the status of 8,000 prisoners of war missing since the Korean War.

The immediate US objective is to convince North Korea to agree by next week to international inspection of its nuclear facilities. The prime ministers of North and South Korea will meet Feb. 19 to discuss the issue.

In what the US official describes as a "fundamental shift," North Korea has taken a series of steps that augur well for progress on the nuclear issue.

Last summer it initialed a nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would allow access to inspectors from the agency that monitors compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In December it signed an agreement with South Korea to ban possession and development of nuclear weapons. On Jan. 30 it belatedly signed the safeguards agreement.

The concessions were a key part of a strategy to attract Western aid, technology, and management expertise that North Korea needs to rejuvenate its economy and - in the words of the US official remain a viable state." North Korea is haunted by the precedent of East Germany, a stagnant communist state that was swallowed up by its prosperous Western neighbor. In the dread analogy, South Korea assumes the role of West Germany.

But despite its pressing needs, North Korea has still not clarified its nuclear intentions. Just why is difficult for outsiders to judge.

The worst-case assumption is that North Korea, still harboring ambitions of forcibly unifying the peninsula, is merely buying time until its nuclear-weapons program is operational. Pyongyang says it could be weeks before North Korea's parliament, in a constitutionally unnecessary step, ratifies the IAEA agreement. …