VIENNA, Austria -- North Korea sidestepped the threat of impending U.N. economic sanctions yesterday by agreeing, after months of delay, to allow international inspections of seven nuclear facilities.
The International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the Pyongyang regime of President Kim Il-Sung had accepted the agency's plans and conditions for inspecting the facilities. The inspections are expected to take place within a few weeks.
Though other issues remain unresolved, both the IAEA and the Clinton administration portrayed the new agreement as an important step forward. Discussions will now move to inspections of two other disputed sites in North Korea, though with no imminent threat of sanctions.
The agreement came less than a week before a Feb. 21 deadline for compliance. If North Korea had not agreed to the inspections, IAEA Director General Hans Blix was expected to tell the agency's board of governors that it was no longer possible to guarantee North Korea was not diverting nuclear material for weapons in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Such a declaration could have triggered economic sanctions against North Korea. The Clinton administration recently began talks with other members of the United Nations Security Council about the possibility of such sanctions. North Korea had warned that it would consider any sanctions to be an act of war.
The IAEA agreement temporarily defused the controversy over North Korea's nuclear program, but does not end it. The agreement covers only the seven nuclear installations that North Korea has formally acknowledged are on its soil. It does not apply to two undeclared sites where North Korea is suspected of having disposed of nuclear wastes.
The effect of the new agreement, in fact, is to put the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program back where it was a year ago. In February, 1993, the IAEA asked to inspect the two undeclared nuclear sites. North Korea countered by threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and then barring the IAEA from making routine inspections at the declared sites.