UNITED NATIONS -- The prospect that North Korea will break out of world nuclear weapons controls confronts the Clinton administration with a serious proliferation crisis and only bleak options here for dealing with it.
The next couple of days may show how serious the crisis is.
Barring a breakthrough today in high-level talks here between the United States and North Korea, the Pyongyang regime is intent on withdrawing from the international Nonproliferation Treaty and barring inspections of its nuclear program. The North Koreans declared March 12 that they would withdraw from the treaty in three months, a period that expires tomorrow.
This would be the clearest signal so far that the remote, self-isolating Stalinist nation is determined to acquire nuclear weapons that could threaten America's Asian allies. Intelligence analysts suspect that if the North Koreans don't already have a crude nuclear device, they could develop one within a few years.
And the attempt to bring United Nations punishment against the Koreans could create a confrontation in the Security Council with China, Korea's historic supporter.
The crisis was touched off by the International Atomic Energy Agency's plan to inspect two sites in Yongbyon, 100 miles north of Pyong yang, that intelligence analysts suspect contain underground storage facilities for residues of weapons-grade plutonium production.
Suspicion was prompted by before-and-after Western satellite photographs showing that the two sites had been landscaped with the apparent purpose of concealing the lower floor of a building and a second, honeycomb-like structure of storage tubes.
One problem afflicting the United States' ability to bring pressure on North Korea is that unlike Iran, another potential nuclear worry for the United States, North Korea does not have trade or political ties with Western nations that could be used as leverage, nor much apparent interest in cultivating them. So economic sanctions are not given much hope of forcing North Korea to yield, and limited military action could escalate quickly into a major conflict.
The United States, which does not have relations with North Korea, began talking to the North Koreans here last week in an effort to keep North Korea within the NPT and get it to allow inspections to move forward.
The talks have been conducted by Robert Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju.
The negotiations went into last night and were to resume today. But neither side is willing to venture a prognosis publicly.
Speaking to reporters at the close of yesterday's session, Mr. Kang said the talks had been "serious and intensive" but "not conclusive." He refused to comment on their substance. The U.S. negotiators refused any comment.
Various concessions have been dangled before the North Koreans, offering them the promise of gradually entering the world community, with its trade and economic benefits, if they cooperate.
In addition, the United States has indicated a willingness to abandon the Team Spirit military exercises with South Korea that the north decries as a simulated nuclear attack exercise, and to allow reciprocal inspections in South Korea.
In an earlier concession, the United States last year removed the last of its own nuclear weapons from the Korean mainland.
North Korea, however, wants broad security assurances, diplomats say, demanding that the United States pledge not to threaten Pyongyang with nuclear weapons under any circumstances.
If this week's talks fail, diplomats expect the U.N. Security Council to move ahead on imposing economic sanctions as early as next week. They could include an oil and arms embargo, cutoff of financial links and air travel and deeper diplomatic isolation.
But that could pose a dilemma with China, North Korea's neighbor and ally in the region. Western diplomats were uncertain, however, whether China would go along with a sanctions resolution. At best, they said, China might abstain from a vote.
Even so, sanctions would prove little more than a political gesture, "unless China is prepared to impose a blockade," as one Western diplomat put it.