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Asian Nations Pose Greatest Nuclear Risk

As regional rivals increase atomic know-how, US experts worry about border tensions

WHILE the United States and Russia scrap warheads by the hundreds, worrisome hints of new regional nuclear-arms competitions are emerging in Asia.

US officials and nonproliferation experts are uneasy about tensions in a region where rivals share borders and technical capability is increasing. It would be ironic, they say, if the nuclear spiral were to arise in a new part of the world, while it is being reversed elsewhere. Concern centers on two developments:

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* North Korea has yet to agree to remain an adherent to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There have been hopeful signs in US-North Korean talks, but the Pyongyang regime has promised nothing substantial. Its weapons programs continue: Last week, the Central Intelligence Agency said it has tested a long-range missile thought capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Fear of North Korea's secret program has spurred talk in South Korea about obtaining a matching deterrent. Japanese officials warn of the dangerous situation they'd face if Pyongyang gets the bomb. Foreign Minister Kabun Muto said last week that Japan must have the will to build nuclear weapons, if necessary.

* Rivals India and Pakistan have declared their nuclear capability. Though neither seems to have gotten beyond the experimental stage, experts say that an unstable atomic-arms race could erupt. There is sentiment in both nations to remain nuclear-capable. Some regional experts say the world's best course is to help the nations live with the low-level deterrent.

US officials counter that neither nation seems to appreciate the dangerous dynamics that develop in a nuclear rivalry. The US and former Soviet Union were not contiguous and did not regularly exchange fire over a disputed border.

Today, the most acute Asian nuclear problem for the US is the one in North Korea. When Pyongyang said in March that it would withdraw from the NPT, it set off alarm bells in foreign ministries worldwide. Ever since, the US has led a low-key, but intense diplomatic effort to reverse the decision. Crisis far from over

Though North Korea said last month it is suspending its withdrawal pending further talks, most experts say that the crisis is far from over. The North Koreans have not agreed to inspections of disputed sites. The US has made only hints and veiled references to possible concessions, such as cancellation of the annual Team Spirit military exercises with South Korea, or allowing the North to inspect US bases on the Korean Peninsula.

While giving the administration high marks for the subtlety of its approach, the US is going to have to move first, says a congressional nuclear-proliferation expert. After all, with its threat to make nuclear weapons, North Korea is holding something akin to a trump card. "They're going to have to give something of value to North Korea to make it come along in this process," says Michael Mazarr, a Capitol Hill legislative assistant and former senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International S tudies.

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US officials reply that it is important that they not convey the appearance of giving up something for nothing. They say they will continue to talk, with the next round scheduled in two months, even if North Koreans haven't agreed to the disputed inspections. "We haven't decided yet what would be a failure," a US official says.

While North Korea is still months or years from acquiring an atomic bomb, India and Pakistan have obtained nuclear-weapons technology. India set off a "peaceful" nuclear explosion in 1974. And Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan admitted in a 1992 interview that his nation had the parts for at least one nuclear device. India, Pakistan proceed on work

Both countries have continued quiet work on atomic-weapon techniques and delivery systems. A US official is concerned that, in the near future, one or both will reach a "Rubicon that has yet to be crossed" - development of small warheads and ballistic missiles to carry them.

India has carried out test firings of its Agni missile, designed to carry a 1,100-pound payload 1,000 miles.

"The question is how to make a nuclearized South Asia stable and free of war," argued C. Raja Mohan, research associate at India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, at a Friday meeting with reporters in Washington.

China has felt secure with only a small nuclear force, he pointed out. But a US official replies that an arms race between rivals can become "a running train." Given the history of conflict in India and Pakistan, they might find this train more difficult to control than they imagine.

India, especially, has resisted efforts to denuclearize - partly because it also views China as a possible adversary. But India and Pakistan might be interested in a Clinton strategy including a world cutoff of fissile-material production.

One way to ease tensions might be an attempt to settle the most-fractious territorial dispute between the nations. "At some level, the issue of Kashmir has to be addressed," argued Pervez Hoodbhoy, nuclear-physics professor at Pakistan's Quaid-e-Azam University.

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