WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Tuesday approved a deal reached by U.S. negotiators in Geneva to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program, saying the agreement "will make the United States, the Korean peninsula and the world safer."
Clearly delighted by what he considers a victory for his foreign policy, the President appeared before television cameras to hail the agreement as "the first step on the road to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula." He instructed Special Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci, the Administration's lead negotiator with North Korea, to sign the accord Friday in Geneva.
However, the White House refused to release the text Tuesday, and Administration officials said that it will not be made public until after it is signed. Instead, Gallucci and other U.S. officials briefed reporters on what they said are its principal elements.
The accord, concluded Monday in Geneva, gives North Korea a series of economic and political benefits in exchange for promises to freeze and eventually dismantle its current nuclear facilities, which the CIA believes have been used to make the material for one to two nuclear weapons.
"The North Koreans do have an interest in a political and economic opening. They do have long-term energy needs. And we are addressing those needs," Gallucci told reporters at a White House briefing. "They are giving up a nuclear program that posed an enormous risk to South Korea, to Japan, to Northeast Asia and to the international non-proliferation regime."
North Korea will dismantle two large nuclear reactors now under construction, which would have had the potential to make enough fuel for hundreds of nuclear weapons. Operations of an existing, smaller reactor at Yongbyon will also be stopped, and it too will eventually be dismantled, U.S. officials said.
About 8,000 radioactive fuel rods now sitting outside the Yongbyon reactor will be sealed, and U.S. officials said the North Koreans have agreed to let those rods be shipped outside their country.
That is an important new concession by Pyongyang, which previously had insisted that the rods, a potential source of fuel for nuclear weapons, would have to be stored on North Korean soil. But the rods do not have to be shipped out for eight or nine years. And Pyongyang has the same time frame to dismantle the nuclear reactors.
In return for its concessions, North Korea will get two 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactors valued at $4 billion. South Korea and Japan will supply most of the equipment and financing for those facilities.
The light-water reactors employ technology that can be used for civilian nuclear energy, but they produce plutonium that cannot be turned into weapons-grade fuel as easily as that from North Korea's current gas-graphite reactors.
In addition, Administration officials said, the United States and its allies will supply North Korea with more economic benefits, in the form of oil supplies to provide energy in the years before the light-water reactors are finished. U.S. officials said that North Korea will get heavy oil, which cannot be used for tanks, planes or other military equipment.
Beyond these economic benefits, the long-isolated North Korean regime will gain its first dollop of political recognition from the West. The United States and North Korea will open liaison offices in each other's capitals, the first step toward the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Finally, in the key compromise of the deal, North Korea agreed to submit to special inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency of two sites believed to contain nuclear wastes. But the United States agreed that these inspections, which the agency had demanded last year, will not have to take place for "about five years," according to Gallucci.
The special inspections of these waste dumps are important because they are expected to show how far North Korea has progressed in its efforts to make nuclear weapons. The agreement does not specify a five-year delay, but it says that the special inspections must take place before North Korea gets any significant amount of nuclear equipment for its light-water reactors--a period expected to take about five years.
Outside the Administration, a number of specialists on the proliferation of nuclear weapons said they worry that the agreement represents nothing but promises that will not be carried out.
"We're letting them off the economic and diplomatic hook, without getting anything more than promises that have been broken in the past," said Gary Milhollan of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
"If the North Koreans are being let out from under the present embargo and are being given oil to rescue their economy, we are losing the leverage over them that we now have, meaning economic leverage."
"I just hope we're not deluding ourselves," said David Albright, a physicist and nuclear expert who heads the Institute for Science and International Security. "Do you believe that the North Koreans want to put their bomb program behind them, or are they just buying time? You have to be suspicious of North Korea."
Nevertheless, Clinton maintained that North Korea's compliance with the accord will be carefully monitored by the international inspectors. "It (the agreement) does not rely on trust," he said.