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Experts Begin Inspection Of N. Korean Nuclear Sites

By Thomas W. Lippman and T.R. Reid
The Washington Post

International experts began inspecting North Korean nuclear facilities Thursday, triggering other prearranged steps by the United States and North and South Korea to avert a confrontation over nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula.

The start of the long-delayed inspections was followed by an announcement by the Clinton administration that it would agree to "suspend" joint military exercises with South Korea this year and resume political discussions with North Korea on March 21.

At the same time, discussions between North and South Korea resumed, although not harmoniously. Negotiators from the two Koreas, meeting for the first time in four months, traded another round of shouts and insults as they argued over U.S. plans to deploy Patriot anti-missile batteries in the South.

But South Korean President Kim Young Sam said he expects "significant progress" in North-South ties "because the North has used up its nuclear card," he told the state KBS television station.

Thursday's actions by the three countries represented the first substantial results of almost a year of intense diplomatic efforts by the Clinton administration to keep North Korea inside the international nuclear non-proliferation framework, and administration officials hailed them as "important" and "welcome."

But the administration's negotiating tactics came under fire on Capitol Hill from senators who charged that North Korea is getting away with what amounts to nuclear blackmail.

Almost a year ago, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires signatories to accept international inspection of nuclear facilities to ensure that nuclear materials are not being diverted from civilian to military use. North Korea has produced some plutonium, the basic building block of nuclear weapons.

The United States has been leading an international effort to persuade the isolated communist regime in Pyongyang to return to the treaty fold and to resume negotiations with South Korea.

Last week, after months of virtual stalemate, North Korea agreed to issue visas to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and give them access to most -- but not all -- of the facilities they want to examine. Pyongyang also agreed to negotiate directly with Seoul about exchanging special envoys to discuss more open relations between the two Koreas, which for nearly 50 years have been implacable foes.

In exchange, the United States and South Korea agreed to call off for this year the joint military exercises known as "Team Spirit," which North Korea has denounced as a provocation.

According to State Department officials, the Clinton administration had little choice but to negotiate with North Korea, holding out the possibility of ending North Korea's ostracism from the world if Pyongyang accepted nuclear inspections and resumed political dialogue with the South.

The start of a two-week inspection visit by the IAEA team "is an important step. It shows some progress," Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis told a Senate panel Thursday. "But we are clearly not satisfied. ... We have not made all the progress to date we would have wished" on gaining unconditional North Korean agreement to permit periodic inspections of known and suspected nuclear sites.

The current round of inspections covers only North Korea's seven declared nuclear sites, not two additional sites suspected by the United States of harboring nuclear waste. Principally for this reason, senators complained Thursday that the administration has given away too much too soon in agreeing to call off military exercises with South Korea and resume high-level political and economic talks with North Korea.

Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said he found it "disquieting" that the United States would "put some fairly significant carrots on the table ... in return for what would best be described as minimal compliance" by North Korea with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, complained that the North Koreans "gained concessions from the United States for doing what they are required to anyway" under the treaty. "One could conclude that we have capitulated and retreated" from insistence on full compliance by Pyongyang with conditions previously stated by the United States for resumption of the high-level negotiations, Murkowski said.

She and other officials said the administration's decision to cancel Team Spirit this year and undertake new negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's international isolation are both conditional.

"They are based on the premise," she said, that the nuclear inspections will be "fully implemented" and that North and South Korea will agree to exchange "special envoys" to raise the level of their political talks. Full implementation, she said, means accepting whatever inspections the IAEA deems necessary to ensure what is known as "continuity of safeguards" against the diversion of nuclear material.

U.S. and South Korean officials said further dialogue with the North and the prospect of diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Washington are conditioned on the North's full cooperation with the international inspection of its nuclear-research labs.

State Department Spokesman Michael McCurry said Thursday that "the long-standing security relationship (between the United States and South Korea) remains strong, and the suspension of Team Spirit `94 will not weaken our joint defensive capabilities."