WASHINGTON — Ending an acrimonious seven-month stalemate, North Korea agreed Tuesday to allow U.S. inspectors to visit an underground facility that the reclusive Stalinist regime is suspected of using as a clandestine nuclear weapons factory.
The pact announced jointly by the two governments represents a significant breakthrough, removing the single biggest obstacle to completion of a 1994 accord under which North Korea agreed to shut down two nuclear reactors in exchange for a package of international aid.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright characterized the agreement as "an important step . . . toward stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." Republican critics said the deal amounts to a "reward for bad behavior" by North Korea.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said U.S. negotiators rejected North Korea's demand for $300 million in compensation for allowing Americans to inspect the facility at Kumchangni. At the same time, he said, the Clinton administration agreed to a joint project intended to improve potato production in the famine-racked country.
"The North Koreans are seeking to resolve their significant and substantial problems with famine by becoming better able to produce basic agricultural products," Rubin said. He said the pact allows U.S.-based private humanitarian organizations to "work with farms in North Korea to try to improve potato yield and oversee a food-for-work project to complement these efforts."
Rubin said the United States gave North Korea 500,000 tons of food aid last year through the U.N. World Food Program. He said the administration will consider additional assistance "based on our long-standing policy on humanitarian food aid in response to demonstrated need, but not on the basis of any other consideration."
But Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the agreement "smacks of a 'food-for-access' deal that could lead to further provocative actions on the part of the North Koreans to extort future concessions."
"While I support the agreement to provide access to North Korea's suspect underground nuclear facility, I am concerned that the administration provided almost 600,000 tons of food to gain access," Gilman said. "I worry that the North Koreans and other rogue nations will begin charging the United States for ensuring their compliance with international agreements. It looks like we are pouring good U.S. food aid down a North Korean hole."
Albright also announced that the United States and North Korea will resume negotiations on the latter's missile program March 29 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Rubin said Washington's objective in those talks will be to persuade the North Koreans to curtail missile development and agree not to sell missiles to other countries, especially rogue regimes. North Korea raised international concerns last summer when it fired a test missile across Japan.
U.S. intelligence agencies raised questions last August about the excavation at Kumchangni, suggesting that the facility could be used to continue the nuclear program that Pyongyang agreed to close down five years ago. North Korea denied that the facility had any connection with nuclear arms.
Under the 1994 pact, North Korea agreed to close down two aging nuclear reactors that could produce weapons-grade material as a byproduct of electricity generation. In exchange, the United States, Japan and South Korea agreed to supply North Korea with two modern "light-water" reactors and shipments of heavy fuel oil. But the accord was suspended during the dispute over the Kumchangni excavation.
Rubin said cooperation will resume only if the inspections, to begin in May, are carried out satisfactorily.
"We have no illusions about North Korea," Rubin said. "That's why this agreement is structured through a step-by-step process. . . . As they demonstrate compliance, we provide additional work on the reactors and in the heavy fuel area."
Administration officials and critics of the White House policy agreed that the inspectors will probably find no trace of a nuclear weapons program. These observers said it is extremely unlikely that North Korea would agree to an inspection if there was anything to find.
"We have not said that we believe this particular site is one which is now a problem," Rubin said. "What we've said is . . . we had serious and substantial concerns about this site in the future."
A senior Republican staffer on Capitol Hill said the inspection "undoubtedly will show nothing."
"This is a hole in the ground, probably a very large hole in the ground, near a lake. It could be used as a reprocessing center for nuclear fuel," the staffer said."North Korea has thousands of caves that could be used for this. The larger question still remains: Are they pursuing a nuclear weapons program in violation of the agreed framework? We don't know the answer to that and probably won't know any more after May."
A North Korean official in New York said his government was "very happy" with Tuesday's agreement.
Nevertheless, North Korea struck a defiant note about the missile talks to resume later this month. The official Korean Central News Agency said: "The U.S. is mistaken if it thinks that it can 'check' the [North Korean] missile development through 'cooperation' with other countries, and it should not dream that kind of dream."