N Korean retreat fails to resolve bomb issue: Restrictions on access to nuclear site leave key questions unanswered

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THE United States and South Korea, responding to North Korea's agreement to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities, yesterday suggested they would suspend annual military exercises described by Pyongyang as preparations for war.

However, although North Korea's deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has averted the immediate prospect of a show-down with the UN Security Council next week, it still leaves open the tantalising question of whether the Stalinist regime has already made a nuclear bomb.

Inspectors from the IAEA are expected to travel to North Korea this weekend, where they will begin several weeks of nuclear inspections that have been suspended for over a year. The last-minute agreement means that North Korea will not now be declared to be in violation of the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at an IAEA board of governors' meeting scheduled for next Monday. An outright violation would have automatically qualified for consideration by the UN Security Council, which most likely would have resorted to economic sanctions.

For the past month North Korea had been adamantly refusing to admit the inspectors, while its government propaganda was issuing increasingly combative rhetoric. Pyongyang said that it would regard any sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council as tantamount to a declaration of war. But the announcement in Washington at the end of last month that the Pentagon would send Patriot missiles and other hi-tech weapons systems to South Korea has apparently called Pyongyang's bluff and forced it back to the negotiating table.

In addition to its renewed contact with the IAEA, North Korea has also reopened talks with the US: one of its prize goals throughout the dispute has been diplomatic recognition and eventual economic aid from Washington. By getting tough last month, President Bill Clinton seems to have persuaded his counterpart in Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung, that confrontation was leading North Korea into a non-productive cul de sac that would end up either in total isolation or even annihilation.

However, the deal under which the IAEA inspectors will be admitted to the nuclear facility in Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, only allows them to visit seven sites already declared by the North Koreans. This will allow the IAEA to 'verify that nuclear material in these facilities has not been diverted since earlier inspections', according to the agency. Inspectors will continue to be barred from two crucial sites that are suspected to house evidence of a plutonium-extraction programme.

It was the IAEA's growing suspicions that North Korea was secretly extracting plutonium, the key ingredient of a nuclear weapon, that led to the confrontation between the IAEA and Pyongyang last year, and North Korea's abrupt refusal to allow nuclear inspections to continue.

Specifically the IAEA thought that two buildings, located directly between the reactor and the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, contained canisters of nuclear waste that would show the extent to which the North Koreans had been attempting to extract plutonium - perhaps enough for one or two nuclear bombs.

When the inspectors asked to check the two suspect sites, North Korea said they were military installations, and refused the IAEA access.

According to the IAEA's David Kyd, access to the sites is still an urgent priority of the agency, although it did not demand to see them on this visit. 'The hawks might say we should have gone for more, but like many things, this business is the art of the possible. If we had kept asking for the two extra sites, we could have been talking until doomsday.'

Under the current scenario, after the IAEA inspectors have finished their work next month, the US and North Korea will begin new talks on expanded inspections - for which Pyongyang will be looking for fresh concessions. Mr Kyd said: 'We haven't abandoned the idea of the two undeclared sites, and the North Koreans know it.'