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Next Step in Korea

THE frankness from chief United States negotiator Robert Gallucci about North Korean nuclear aims was refreshing. Back from Geneva, where he had framed an agreement that may end North Korea's nuclear program, Ambassador Gallucci said that Pyong-yang has all along sought a ``nuclear option'' and that North Korea's failure to hide evidence of plutonium reprocessing from inspectors two years ago is the only reason the question of a North Korean bomb surfaced.

Such frankness on the eve of a new agreement that still must prove itself does seem more reassuring than some of the assumptions heard when former President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea in July. Mr. Carter seemed to feel that North Korea doesn't really want a bomb, it just wants to join the international community, and that its nuclear program was only a way of ``acting out'' those frustrations.

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At a time of transition and uncertainty in North Korea, that perception may be partly true. But the Gallucci agreement properly stresses verification of North Korea's program, at least in principle. The new deal halts nuclear activity in North Korea, puts the new Kim regime back into the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and eventually will open up two controversial sites for inspection. In exchange, the US, Japan, and South Korea will spend $4 billion in construction of safer nuclear reactors for North Korea, and Washington begins a process of diplomatic recognition with Pyongyang.

The Gallucci agreement, coming on the heels of a Haitian and possibly an Iraqi success, and just before the November elections, is being presented as a White House foreign-policy victory just when it needs one. How much this affected the bargaining on the North Korean side of the table is unknown. The deal seems positive if the alternative to these talks is seen to be military action. But the deal doesn't solve anything; it puts the crisis on hold. How much weapons-grade plutonium North Korea has remains unknown.

The US position in Geneva seems to have been that the tenor of North Korea will change as it enters the world community. Pyongyang will be somehow more reliable if it is less isolated. Perhaps this is true. But certainly North Korea's shrewd negotiators can see precedents that bring this assumption into question. The UN, for example, just lifted the embargo on a regime in Belgrade that led a genocide and it may lift sanctions against Iraq. After the cold war, it is not clear that membership in the world community and attendance at conferences on human rights and trade mean anything about norms of behavior.

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