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Regional Outlook : Nuclear Tussle Raises the Stakes in Korean Waiting Game : Washington expects North Korea to collapse when leader Kim dies. Meanwhile, it tries to avoid provoking the North.


INSIDE THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE, South Korea — U.S. Army Capt. Kevin C. Warren gestures toward the North Korean outpost on the next ridge and muses how he has become part of a test of wills that has gone on for almost 41 years.

Little has changed here since July, 1953, when North and South Korea signed a fragile armistice. North Korea still is run as a Stalinist regime. Its troops stand guard grimly at the border. Tensions are high.

"It's basically a waiting game," Warren concedes.

This year, however, the contest has taken on a new urgency as the Clinton Administration, moving to block the Pyongyang government's bid to build a nuclear arsenal, has rekindled some of the passion in North Korea's defiance of the West.

The waiting game has intensified as the United States and South Korea try to nudge Pyongyang into halting its nuclear weapons program without setting off a backlash that might spur North Korea into military action.

For the immediate term, the United States is patiently trying to coax the North Koreans into allowing international inspection of all their nuclear facilities by late summer, in time to determine whether one of the last redoubts of communism is going to reprocess more of its spent plutonium into material for nuclear weapons.

Over the long haul, Washington is waiting for death to come to Kim Il Sung--the 82-year-old North Korean dictator, known to his countrymen as the Great Leader, who has been the country's unchallenged power since before the 1953 Korean War armistice.

U.S. analysts believe that, with no clear successor in sight, the Pyongyang regime is likely to collapse after Kim dies and that the country will be absorbed by South Korea, much as East Germany was taken in by West Germany. "Once he goes, I'd give things about six months before the (Korean) Peninsula is reunified," one well-placed U.S. official says. "The question is, what happens in between?"

For the interim, the Administration, under pressure from a nervous South Korea to be patient and not provoke Kim unnecessarily, has settled into a 1990s waiting game more subtle than the one that began in the 1950s.

On the diplomatic front, Washington is retreating from the hard-line stance that it took in March when it threatened North Korea with everything from economic sanctions to a possible preemptive military strike to prod it to comply with international inspection of its nuclear facilities.

After conferring with South Korean leaders late last month, U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry sounded a more conciliatory tone, even putting off a controversial decision on whether to hold the annual U.S.-South Korean military games. Pyongyang had railed that it would regard resumption of the "Team Spirit" exercises as an "act of war."

Meanwhile, the Administration has been moving quietly, but determinedly, to provide a long list of equipment designed to help fill worrisome gaps in the military capabilities of U.S. and South Korean forces here. Seoul, for example, will bolster its current arsenal with sophisticated artillery-locating radar, precision-guided antitank weapons, improved communications equipment and more night-vision goggles.

And last month, the first shipment of 48 Patriot air-defense missile launchers and Apache attack helicopters, which Washington has deployed to help strengthen American defenses here, arrived in the southern port of Pusan. The batteries became operational this week.

There also has been a noticeable cooling in the rhetoric south of the DMZ. Only a few weeks ago, for example, Perry had warned that the United States would do whatever it took to halt Pyongyang's nuclear program. But more recently, he has pledged that "the United States will not initiate a war" or even "provoke a war by any rash actions on the peninsula."

"What talk you hear occasionally in the media of war is entirely inappropriate," he told a news conference on his trip here.

The abrupt switch in U.S. strategy stems from several factors. First, the previous, more-bellicose approach did not work, only prompting Kim to dig his heels in more. Pyongyang vowed that Seoul would become a "sea of flames."

Second, the South Koreans--who, after all, would suffer the brunt of the damage if North Korea ever decided to attack--had become decidedly nervous about the impact of the U.S. saber-rattling. Seoul clearly wanted a change.

The two governments finally saw an opening when Kim himself turned unexpectedly more conciliatory, delivering a rare speech in which he denied any nuclear ambitions and vowed to let inspectors in.

Both Perry and his South Korean counterparts lost no time in praising the address--albeit warily--as encouraging. Within a few hours, the United States softened its approach.

Ironically, despite all the worry in Washington about a possible North Korean attack, those who confront the North Koreans here every day essentially agree with Perry's assessment that there is no sign yet of imminent war.

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