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Getting Pyongyang to Play Ball : Beijing could be the key to keeping North Korea from nuclear arms

July 17, 1993

Is North Korea starting to bend under pressure to fully open its nuclear facilities to international inspection? U.S. and North Korean officials who have been negotiating in Geneva this week over Pyongyang's refusal to permit inspections have unexpectedly scheduled a third meeting, for Monday. The head of the U.S. negotiating team promises a "substantive" announcement at that time.

At issue is whether North Korea will grant full access to its Yongbyon nuclear site, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have been allowed to examine a nuclear reactor and an unfinished laboratory in the compound but were barred from two other buildings. Officials suspect that plutonium whose existence has not been reported to the IAEA is stored in those facilities. The CIA says Pyongyang may have secretly produced enough plutonium to soon arm one or two nuclear bombs.

It's not clear if Washington is offering some form of inducement to Pyongyang to win its cooperation, whether support of international loans for the desperately impoverished country or an opening of trade or whatever. Some South Korean officials have quietly urged holding out some form of carrot. What is clear is that the most likely alternative to voluntary cooperation--international sanctions--can be truly effective only if China, North Korea's northern neighbor, agrees to go along. In March, Beijing said it opposed sanctions. Now well-informed officials in Seoul are suggesting that China--with which South Korea has growing diplomatic, trade and commercial relations and on which North Korea heavily depends for oil, food and military supplies--may be ready at least not to stand in the way of sanctions.

China, of course, has powerful geostrategic reasons to oppose a nuclear-armed North Korea. If the north goes nuclear South Korea almost certainly would follow. Worse, to Beijing's mind, Japan has begun to signal a possible change in its own anti-nuclear policy in the light of what its hostile and unpredictable neighbor seems to be up to. A switch by Beijing on sanctions could be the key to deterring North Korea from its dangerous quest for nuclear arms.

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