American skepticism about a North Korean defector's claim that the Pyongyang regime has already built five nuclear bombs is justified, but only to a degree. It's all a matter of timing. Right now U.S. experts figure North Korea has accumulated only enough plutonium for one or two nuclear explosives. But last month, CIA director James Woolsey warned the stockpile could grow to five bombs later this year. And Sen. John McCain, a hawk on this issue, recalls how much the United States underestimated the extent of Iraq's nuclear program.
Just how the death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the anticipated succession of his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, will affect negotiations over North Korea's buildup won't be clarified until American and North Korea diplomats meet Aug. 5. If then. Pyongyang has repeatedly used the tactic of promising to live up to its non-proliferation commitments only to renege after gaining time to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
To that extent, the passing of Kim Il Sung provides another respite while radioactive fuel rods extracted from the Yongbyon reactor in June cool to the point they can be handled in August for bomb fabrication. According to former Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, the nuclear "freeze" proclaimed by Kim Il Sung before his passing is a chimera. Mr. Solarz, who headed the House subcommittee on Asia, says in the current New Republic that "work is continuing on a 200-megawatt reactor that by 1966 will give North Korea a capacity to produce fissile material for ten or more atom bombs a year when it is completed in 1966."
If, contrary to past behavior, Kim Jong Il genuinely wishes to pursue his government's alleged desire for a "package deal" with Washington, diplomatic efforts to work about a peaceful solution can proceed. But if there is evidence that it's full-speed ahead for Pyongyang military hardliners, then the crisis whose end was proclaimed by former President Jimmy Carter will be far from over.
Even Mr. Solarz is prepared to support a deal in which the U.S. ignores North Korea's small existing arsenal in the interest of shutting down far more prolific future arms production. But he has one proviso. Japan and South Korea have to accept this arrangement, despite the danger it poses. If they refuse, then Mr. Solarz believes our allies should support a surgical U.S. air strike to take out North Korea's nuclear facilities.
The Clinton administration, after a year and a half of fruitless carrot-and-stick diplomacy, is obviously reluctant to face up to such unpalatable alternatives. It hopes the Carter-Kim embrace will usher in a new era, one in which North Korea will cease being a rogue regime in return for American-Japanese-South Korean diplomatic recognition and economic assistance. Nevertheless, the specter of North Korea emerging as a nuclear supplier for the likes of Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Libya has not been dispelled. Mr. Clinton must not retreat from his demand that North Korea end its nuclear activities.