White House attacked over nuclear deal: US gives up demand for regular inspections in move to cool dispute with North Korea

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The Independent Online
THE Clinton administration is being criticised for backing off from its demand for regular inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities as it tries to defuse the crisis over North Korea's programme to make a nuclear bomb. Officials say they will accept North Korea's offer of a single full inspection of seven nuclear sites.

In return the United States and South Korea will suspend their joint military exercises and North and South Korea will restart talks about removing nuclear weapons from both countries. In the past the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said they wanted repeated inspections of North Korean nuclear sites.

The scaling down of American demands is partly a recognition that Washington's ability to put pressure on North Korea is limited. China, which is North Korea's biggest trade partner, said last month that it opposed trade sanctions to force North Korea to disclose its full nuclear programme.

Defending the US position an official told the New York Times: 'We need to coax the North Koreans back to the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, without falling on our own sword over phoney principle.' He said the agreement with North Korea would give the IAEA what it needs.

Another official, admitting that the administration had made a tactical retreat, said: 'It's one of those cases where the administration was huffing and puffing and backed down. There's nothing wrong with trying to come out of this without starting a war.'

President Clinton exposed himself to criticism by saying last year that the US would not accept North Korea developing a nuclear bomb. He is also under pressure from US intelligence agencies, the Pentagon and the Republican right to take a hard line against North Korea.

General Brent Scowcroft and Richard Haass, senior officials in the last administration, said yesterday that in compromising with Pyongyang, Mr Clinton is 'making a crucial error'. They say any arrangement for inspections must provide for regular and full access to all nuclear sites and not be a one- off event. US-South Korean military exercises should continue.

None of the administration's critics have been able to suggest how the US could, in practice, force the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear programme. Japan, China and South Korea all oppose the US escalating the crisis and have played down the issue.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies - though not the State Department - say the North Koreans probably already have one or two nuclear bombs, though they have produced little hard evidence to support the claim. Japanese intelligence officers believe that North Korea may have diverted plutonium from its Yongbyon reactor, but has not developed a trigger device for a bomb.

In future talks the US will press North Korea to allow more inspections. Advocates of a step-by-step approach defusing the crisis have argued that the North Korean regime is unlikely to give up its nuclear option unless it believes the US, Japan and South Korea are willing to normalise relations and not seek its collapse.

Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said after talks with North Korean officials last year: 'The United States and Japan should recognise that the nuclear issue is inseparable from the broader problem of normalising their relations with the Kim Il Sung regime.' He believes the North Korean leaders are divided on pursuing the nuclear option.

A further sign that the inspections logjam is breaking was yesterday's meeting in Vienna between North Korean officials and the IAEA. The agency wants regular inspections but has little choice but to accept what the US has agreed.