WASHINGTON — Don't look now, but just as Bill Clinton is coming to grips with the Bosnia crisis, he may be sideswiped by another international fiasco of similar magnitude. For if creative diplomacy doesn't find a way out of the North Korean nuclear crisis, a global version of the Waco, Tex., standoff may be looming in the form of a confrontation with another self-isolated, heavily armed and similarly suicidal cult--the Pyongyang regime. This time, nuclear weapons may start the fire.
Fears about North Korea's nuclear program have escalated since Pyongyang told the International Atomic Energy Agency it will withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after the agency had caught it cheating. The IAEA had discovered that North Korea had obtained more bomb-grade plutonium than it reported last year, and officials demanded to inspect two suspected nuclear-waste sites. Pyongyang then announced, on March 12, that it would withdraw from the pact, triggering the current crisis.
If implemented, the threat would take effect June 12. This would be the first defection from the 155-nation accord. The action would halt monitoring of North Korea's nuclear facilities and enable Pyongyang to pursue its nuclear-weapon ambitions free from any outside control.
A renegade North Korea could pose a triple threat: It would probably sell nuclear material to unsavory Middle East friends; it could tempt other treaty members, such as Iran and Libya, to follow suit and unravel the non-proliferation regime, and it could provoke instability and a nuclear-arms race in Northeast Asia. Clearly, this is a defining challenge for the post-Cold War international system.
But recent hints that North Korea is looking for a face-saving solution suggest there may be a way out. It will require a broader vision on the part of key U.S. policy-makers and effective coordination with South Korea and Japan, as well as with China. Most important, it will require an activist policy based on the recognition that this crisis is about more than proliferation: It is the survival of the Pyongyang regime--now in the midst of a dynastic political succession from "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung to his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il.
That means unless valid North Korean concerns--legitimacy, enhanced security, and economic aid and investment--are addressed, Pyongyang is unlikely to be persuaded there is a less risky choice than continuing its nuclear program--the only card it has to play--as an ultimate insurance policy. A successful policy requires attractive carrots, not just sticks.
This is not "rewarding intransigence," as some argue. Rather, it is recognizing that we seek an unorthodox solution to an unorthodox problem. In Washington's dealings with North Korea, a clear, precise deal addressing Pyongyang's concerns has never been put on the table; instead, only vague promises of more dialogue have been made. The North Koreans could reasonably fear that if they played their only card, the United States and its allies might just change the game.
U.S. goals in regard to North Korea go far beyond the issue at hand: an unprecedented IAEA request to conduct a "special inspection" of suspected nuclear-waste sites. U.S. policy seeks to end the North Korean nuclear program. This requires, for example, the dismantling of a partly completed nuclear-reprocessing facility, permissible under the treaty. This is why Washington encouraged North and South Korea to reach the 1991 accord for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula--which includes a ban on reprocessing and a more open inspection regime.
What sort of package might solve the crisis? In its withdrawal letter, North Korea claimed it was being unfairly discriminated against by the Atomic Energy Agency and called the U.S.-South Korea "Team Spirit" military exercises a threat. But recent IAEA actions in South Africa discredit North Korea's charge of being "singled out." One key Pyongyang demand is inspections of U.S. military bases in South Korea, where it alleges nuclear weapons are based. The United States agreed in principle to such inspections in the context of a bilateral regime.
The first real step is to sound out Pyongyang's hints that it may rescind its withdrawal from the NPT by offering to halt moves toward sanctions for 60 days if it does so. Then, begin talks on a multiphase deal--offering North Korea the right to inspect U.S. military bases, enhanced U.S. security assurances, a suspension of military exercises and a pledge to begin more normal relations to the degree that North Korea adheres to international norms.
For its part, Pyongyang should agree to allow the AEA to inspect the waste sites and allow the IAEA to take a sample of its reactor core when it is removed. With this, the agency will be able to determine more precisely how much bomb material North Korea has attained.
The next step would be resolution of the nuclear issue, with North Korea coming clean: accounting for all reprocessing discerned by the IAEA; dismantling its reprocessing plant, and allowing challenge inspections with nothing off limits, either by the IAEA or under the north-south nuclear accord. If those conditions are met, the United States could lift the embargo on non-strategic trade and begin normalization talks while South Korea and Japan begin economic activity with North Korea.
If the United States. and its allies take an initiative along such lines, either a satisfactory solution would emerge, or North Korea would reveal its nuclear intentions, leaving Washington with the moral high ground to solidify a global consensus that Pyongyang is indeed a threat to international space that merits coercive action.