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Sanctions or not, North Korea holds the cards

An insular regime denies building hidden nuclear facility but uses the threat of weapons capability to keep outside world on edge.

At South Korea's presidential mansion Saturday, journalists could be forgiven for yawning.

Once again, Presidents Clinton and Kim Dae Jung reaffirmed their commitment to engage North Korea and not tolerate provocations or weapons proliferation. They repeated a demand for access to a suspected nuclear weapons site under a mountain in North Korea. If the destitute country refuses to come clean about its bomb program, it could lose oil supplies, a nuclear reactor, and humanitarian aid. Experts are worried that, once again, too much is being left up to North Korea.

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In 1994 the United States averted war by promising North Korea billions in international aid to freeze its nuclear program. Critics say America succumbed to blackmail.

Heeding complaints that US policy on North Korea is in disarray - somewhat constructive but focused on crisis management - Mr. Clinton appointed ex-Secretary of Defense William Perry to come up with a fresh approach. Paradoxically, that could mean giving North Korea something they want with fewer strings attached: the lifting of sanctions.

North Koreans say sanctions prevent them from earning money legitimately. That's why last week, North Korea demanded $300 million when an American delegation led by special envoy Charles Kartman visited Pyongyang, asking for access to the suspected nuclear site. Earlier in the year, North Korea requested $500 million from the US to give up missile exports to the Middle East. The US refused both demands. Missile talks, like other negotiations with North Korea, are on and off, and limited in their productivity.

Of course, if sanctions are eliminated, North Korea won't have much to sell. According to South Korea's Ministry of National Unification, fewer than 30 percent of North Korea's factories are operating. North Korea's economy has all but collapsed, and people are fending off starvation by eating tree bark to survive.

But it would "remove a handy crutch that's been used to justify the shortcoming of their economic system," says Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department official. "[Sanctions] have achieved the exact reversal of our goals. They've made North Korea more dangerous, not less," says Quinones.

Sanctions consist of everything from the Trading-with-the-Enemy Act, imposed when the Korean war broke out in 1950, to labeling North Korea a terrorist nation after it blew up a South Korean civilian airliner in 1987.

In fact, America has been steadily lifting sanctions, allowing commercial overflights and humanitarian aid, and liberalizing financial transactions. Quinones and others want an accelerated, unconditional lifting of sanctions. But Saturday, Clinton and Mr. Kim said sanctions will be eased only as North Korea responds to engagement.

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South Korea's efforts

Just getting to this point has required a big leap. South Korea's policy has dramatically shifted from hard-line to "sunshine" with the election of Kim Dae Jung a year ago. The crowning achievement so far has been a luxury liner cruise from South to North Korea. Last week, hundreds of South Korean tourists became the first to visit the North in 50 years.

If North Korea pursues its nuclear ambitions, the aid programs and the 1994 Agreed Framework deal - which froze its bomb program in exchange for new, nonbomb-making reactors and oil - may fall victim to angry congressional Republicans.

And, as North Korea reportedly builds more missile launch sites, critics are wondering how Clinton can be tough on Iraq while appearing to pander to North Korea.

North Korea has actually kept to the letter of the 1994 agreement, if not to its antinuclear spirit.

On the other hand, the US has not fulfilled its stated obligations. Wrangling in Congress over funding the controversial deal has delayed some shipments of heavy fuel oil meant to tide North Korea over while its new reactor is built.

In the meantime, North Korea can continue nuclear R&D. The Agreed Framework doesn't freeze North Korea's nuclear program completely until the US and other countries fulfill obligations. That could make it hard to negotiate an inspection of the suspected complex under a mountain in Kumchangni where construction activity was recently discovered.

Banking on N. Korea's need

Diplomats hope North Korea needs the oil and other aid so badly that it won't let the deal collapse. If it does, get ready for another round of nuclear blackmail. A surgical military strike is untenable because it risks a war in Korea.

In case North Korea adds nuclear bombs to its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons - and the long range missiles to deliver them - defense preparations are under way. Radar tracking stations had their electronic ears up earlier this month when the US test-fired a missile from Kodiak Island near Alaska into the Pacific. Its trajectory mimicked one coming from North Korea, bound for Los Angeles.

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