Washington. -- Ever since 1985, when the then-Soviet Union pressured it into joining a treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, North Korea has stalled world efforts to get to the bottom of its nuclear program.
The Communist regime waited for seven years before declaring its nuclear facilities and permitting inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear-weapons watchdog. When it was suspected of cheating these disclosures, it stalled again to keep the agency from probing further, at one point announcing that it would drop out of the treaty. Even last week, North Korea continued to keep the snoops at bay. Under an agreement hailed as good news by the U.S. State Department, North Korea will reopen its "declared" sites for inspection. But it won't allow inspectors into two buildings where evidence of a nuclear weapons program are suspected of being hidden.
By now, North Korea may well have progressed from being a potential to an actual nuclear threat. The Central Intelligence Agency thinks there's an even chance it has built one or two bombs. It also is developing a new Scud missile that could send these as far as Japan.
Meanwhile, North Korea has shown deft diplomatic footwork for a nation derided as an isolated, Stalinist basket case, managing to extract concessions for every small step toward nuclear cooperation. As part of a package deal agreed to last week, it will get a third round of high-level talks with the United States and cancellation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
The agreement could, in fact, be just a prescription for more stalling. It's now up to the IAEA to negotiate inspection terms with North Korea and gain assurance that its inspectors will be able to make repeated visits. And it will be up to U.S. diplomats, in further talks with North Korea, to push for the kind of cooperation that could ease the world's fears.
That's why a number of the administration's critics, and even some voices within the government, have urged a broader, long-term plan of action that enlists China, Japan, South Korea and other nations in efforts to squeeze North Korea. They acknowledge that this could force the administration to back away from pressuring China on human rights.
"We need a strategy for the next year or 18 months," says Douglas Paal, a National Security Council official in President George Bush's administration, who suggests such steps as frequent military exercises in South Korea, which could force North Korea to stage counter-moves and thus use up scarce fuel supplies, and persuading China to diminish oil exports.
Almost from the start of this drawn-out crisis, the United States and North Korea's neighbors have hoped that a combination of incentives and threats would persuade North Korea to cooperate.
There have been more carrots than sticks. Believing that North Korea needed to be persuaded about American good faith, the United States was the first to ease up on the nuclear threat, removing all tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991.
Early the next year, the Bush administration canceled Team Spirit joint military exercises with South Korea and made what may have been the highest-level contacts since before the Korean War ended, with the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, Arnold Kanter, leading the U.S. delegation.
The point of the meeting was to explain to North Korea that it had reached a crossroads, Mr. Kanter recalled last week: It could rejoin the world community and join the economic miracle transforming Asia, or it could suffer increasing isolation.
Bolstering the U.S. position was the collapse of the North's one-time ally, the Soviet Union, and an increasing distance between North Korea and its only other major friend, China.
This tack seemed to work for awhile. In late 1991, North Korea and South Korea signed a denuclearization agreement intended to pave the way for inspections of each other's nuclear sites, and in the spring of 1992 the North agreed to international inspections.
For a brief period, it looked as though the north's aging dictator, Kim Il Sung, had gotten the message that his country could enter the post-Cold War world only if it gave up its nuclear ambitions. But it has become increasingly clear that to North Korea thought it could have both.
The problems started when North Korea was called upon to carry out what it had signed.
By the time it began seriously investigating North Korea's nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency was a changed institution. Embarrassed to discover how much of Iraq's nuclear-weapons efforts it had missed, the agency adopted a tougher posture. Before it had been content to examine only those sites that were declared to be nuclear facilities; now the agency felt compelled to follow where its suspicions led.
The United States, which had sharply increased intelligence gathering on North Korea in 1990, became less protective of its information and realized it had to supply the agency with leads.
North Korea thus became the first test of a new IAEA policy of making so-called "challenge" or special inspections outside of a list of sites approved by the government. The places chosen were the two sites suspected by intelligence agencies of containing nuclear waste. If this waste were found, it would show that North Korea had produced more nuclear-weapon fuel than it had previously revealed.
At about the same time, relations worsened on the North-South front.
What followed was a prolonged standoff in which North Korea never restored the level of cooperation that existed before the IAEA insisted on challenge inspections.
The Clinton administration initially responded with a tougher posture. In one of his earliest foreign policy actions, President Clinton resumed Team Spirit last year.
This enraged North Korea, which announced that it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a major challenge world efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Rather than respond with further punishment, the Clinton administration chose diplomacy, dispatching Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci to negotiate. His efforts resulted in North Korea's qualified agreement to "suspend" its withdrawal from the treaty, but no commitment on the special inspections.
In exchange, North Korea got the promise of another high-level meeting. That one, too, brought no tangible progress on the special inspections, and by September North Korea was balking even at regular inspections of its declared nuclear sites.
Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, says now that it may have been a mistake to have assured North Korea in 1991 that U.S. nuclear missiles had been removed from the South, even though this was part of a global U.S.-Soviet arms reduction scheme.
"They're tough cookies," he says of the North Koreans.
The world's tools in combating nuclear proliferation are largely undeveloped because the sort of alarms that greeted North Korea's efforts are relatively recent.
When Soviet and U.S. arsenals gripped the world in a balance of terror, efforts to join the nuclear club by smaller powers -- Israel, Pakistan, India and Argentina -- raised nowhere near the concern that exists with North Korea. South Africa came under worldwide sanctions, but for a different reason: apartheid.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, however, awakened the world to the danger of allowing atomic weapons to fall into the hands of rogue states with no respect for international law. Had Saddam Hussein amassed a nuclear arsenal by that time, the invasion could have been much harder, if not impossible, to reverse.
Besides threatening South Korea's population centers, as well as tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed on the demilitarized zone between North and South, a nuclear-armed North Korea could destabilize much of Asia and force Japan to reconsider its renunciation of nuclear ambitions.
Compounding the danger is the fear that North Korea could export technology and nuclear material to help Iran develop its own bomb. And North Korea could set a precedent of escalating blackmail by new nuclear states.
President Clinton, who declared last year that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a bomb, now may face a choice between living with a rogue state possessing a couple of nuclear weapons or accepting the much tougher challenge of getting it to relinquish what it has.
Mark Matthews is the diplomatic correspondent in The Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau.