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
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
"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
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. …