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NEWS ANALYSIS : N. Korea Deal Least Risky of U.S. Options : Diplomacy: Critics decry lenient terms ending dispute over nuclear program. But pact avoids stalemate--or war.


WASHINGTON — Did the Clinton Administration get a good Korea deal or not?

If you are an idealist, the answer is probably no. But if you believe abstract principles must be tailored for the grimy, scary realities of North Korea, the answer may well be yes.

For those who believe in establishing worldwide rules for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, the agreement could be considered a disaster. It gives North Korea another five years before it has to submit to the special inspections it was legally obliged to accept more than a year ago--and it gives North Korea billions of dollars in economic rewards to boot.

"It's not a good precedent if you want to strengthen safeguards--and that was the message that was developed after the (Persian) Gulf War," said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Critics worry that Iran, in particular, could try to follow North Korea's formula for economic development by way of nuclear blackmail.

Indeed, American policy is so inconsistent that the United States has been trying to block Iran from buying overseas the same kind of light-water nuclear technology that the United States has agreed North Korea will get. What's the difference? North Korea already has much more dangerous nuclear technology, and the new light-water reactors will make it harder, though not impossible, for it to produce the fuel for nuclear weapons.

Despite these inconsistencies, those who worry more about the specifics of North Korea than about the consequences elsewhere tend to view the Administration's deal as a good one. After all, they argue, the alternatives to a negotiated deal with North Korea would be more unattractive than the deal itself.

One option would be a bloody new war on the Korean peninsula that would force Pyongyang to submit to international inspections. And the other alternative would be a long stalemate without a deal, during which North Korea might well grow increasingly impoverished but at the same time could produce ever more bomb-grade nuclear fuel.

In other words, the stalemate option would have been a high-stakes gamble. Without economic help from abroad, North Korea might well eventually collapse, like the former Communist governments of Eastern Europe. But before falling apart, it might also have had the time to produce enough nuclear bombs to terrorize the rest of Asia and, perhaps, to export nuclear bombs or fuel to countries in the Middle East.

That was a risk that the Clinton Administration did not want to run.

"We were concerned about the continued construction of reactors which would--and this is no exaggeration--produce over the next five or 10 years perhaps thousands of kilograms of plutonium, enough for hundreds and hundreds of nuclear weapons," Special Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci said this week at the White House.

The Korean nuclear crisis began in March, 1993, when the International Atomic Energy Agency asked to make two special inspections of sites at which North Korea was suspected of having dumped nuclear wastes.

Those inspections could be a crucial step in determining how much nuclear fuel North Korea has diverted to its weapons program. The CIA has estimated that North Korea has made enough weapons-grade fuel for one or two bombs, but the special inspections would provide the telltale proof.

As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea legally is obliged to submit to these special inspections. But it has refused to do so, instead threatening to withdraw entirely from the treaty. And without the use of force, the agency and the Western powers have been unable to force North Korea to undergo the inspections. So, after the long talks with the United States, the crisis apparently is ending with those special inspections put off for five years.

The Administration's new agreement succeeds in bringing North Korea back under the international rules limiting the spread of weapons, but it also offers financial and diplomatic rewards for doing so.

"It's the first purchase of its kind," said Douglas Paal, a former George Bush Administration official now working at the Asia Pacific Policy Center. "North Korea's been bought back" into the non-proliferation treaty, he said.

Some pragmatists who said they believe that a deal with North Korea was worth making still question whether the Administration paid too high a price.

In return for staying in the treaty and freezing its nuclear facilities, the Pyongyang regime will exchange diplomatic liaison offices with the United States and get eventual trade and investment, two 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactors worth $4 billion and additional oil supplies. The costs will be picked up by South Korea, Japan, the United States and perhaps some other countries.

Congress apparently will investigate how expensive the Korea deal will be. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said Wednesday that "when Congress returns, we should take a close look at this agreement, examining issues including the long-term implications and the cost to taxpayers."

"The accord with North Korea shows it is always possible to get an agreement when you give enough away," Dole said. "In exchange for promises about North Korea's nuclear program, the U.S. gift-wraps new nuclear reactors and opens up shop in Pyongyang."

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