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North Korea Unyielding On Inspection Demands

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post

Last week's tough talk by the Clinton administration and the United Nations about North Korea's nuclear program seemed Monday to have created more apprehension among North Korea's neighbors than in Pyongyang, which illustrates the challenge of quickly halting the country's nuclear ambitions.

In a statement, the North Korean Foreign Ministry rejected the U.N. Security Council's non-binding demand for full inspections of its nuclear facilities. The statement also denounced the United States for escalating international pressure it said was aimed at "stifling" North Korea.

As North Korea remained unyielding, some officials from neighboring Japan and South Korea signaled that they are nervous about the impasse and want Washington and other nations to renew a diplomatic dialog with North Korea.

U.S. officials said the reactions in Tokyo and Seoul reflect the special insecurities felt by officials there because of the military threat posed by North Korea's million-member army and its development of a ballistic missile arsenal. Both governments have long been ambivalent about the wisdom of pursuing a confrontational approach toward North Korea, the officials said.

As one U.S. official said, "On Mondays, they complain that we're being too soft. On Tuesdays, they fear we're too hard." The ambivalence, he said, is rooted in uncertainty in all three capitals about which approach will induce North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

Another official said that when Washington blows hot, its allies in the region blow cold to ensure that North Korea knows the door is still open for a peaceful settlement. When Washington is pushing a diplomatic track, its allies might call for more toughness so the coalition does not lose "face" through excessive compromise.

North Korea, in contrast, has given little diplomatic ground in the past year while continuing to improve and expand its ability to produce plutonium for nuclear arms. It has responded, or threatened to respond, to Washington's tough remarks with harsh acts of its own.

In Monday's statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, North Korea said the U.N. Security Council censure left North Korea with "no alternative but to put on the normal track our peaceful nuclear activities which have been unilaterally frozen" since diplomatic talks got under way with Washington last year.

U.S. officials interpreted that as a threat by North Korea to resume the plutonium production for nuclear arms and to conduct other nuclear activities without scrutiny by inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

If carried out, the U.S. officials said, the North Korean threat would abrogate a pledge the country made last June and terminate any possible diplomatic dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. But they noted that North Korea has made the same threat before without acting on it.

In South Korea, meanwhile, some newspapers denounced the tough talk about North Korea by Perry. Students there burned U.S. flags over the weekend and carried signs telling Perry -- who warned that Washington was determined to block North Korea's development of a substantial nuclear arsenal -- not to meddle in the region's affairs.

Washington was surprised by press accounts of a statement by South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Hong Soon-young on Sunday that the government might be willing to drop a key demand in its impasse with North Korea. The concession hinted at by Hong involved South Korea's acceptance of a North Korean timetable for exchanging diplomatic envoys.

A spokesman for South Korean president Kim Young-Sam quickly disavowed Hong's statement, but the report left an impression in Washington that officials in Seoul were getting nervous about the impasse and wanted to strike a deal. North Korea previously said it would allow full inspections only after the envoy issue was resolved.

Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa also raised questions in Washington by calling Monday for combined efforts by China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States to persuade North Korea to resume talks about the nuclear issue. Hosokawa made his statement in a press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, who was visiting Japan after three days of talks in Washington.

Washington's current posture is that it has no plans to resume dialogue until North Korea allows full inspections of its nuclear facilities.