A dictator's deadly legacy: As talks on North Korea's nuclear programme resume, Raymond Whitaker warns of the dangers of failure

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WHEN senior representatives of the United States and North Korea met on the shores of Lake Geneva last month, they did not know that Kim Il Sung had died the night before.

Early the next morning, more than 36 hours after the dictator's death, a member of the American delegation who had been woken with the news telephoned the North Korean mission, only to discover that they still knew nothing. 'You'd better turn your radio on,' he advised them. The incident was typical of the secrecy and paranoia that Kim had instilled during more than 40 years of Stalinist rule, and illustrated the dangers inherent in allowing such a nation to develop nuclear weapons.

In all the uncertainty surrounding Kim's death and the dynastic succession of his son, Kim Jong Il, the one apparent comfort has been North Korea's quick assurance that it wanted to continue negotiating with the US on its suspect nuclear programme. But today, when the two sides resume their meeting in Geneva, it will soon be clear how little has changed. The new 'Great Leader' in Pyongyang poses the same threat as the old; not merely to his neighbours or to US foreign policy, but to the entire future of nuclear non-proliferation in the post-Cold War world.

Kim Il Sung left a deadly legacy. His country has long been believed by the CIA to have material for one or two crude nuclear devices, but shortly before his death the 8,000 fuel rods forming the core of North Korea's main reactor, at the Yongbyon nuclear complex were removed in defiance of warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The rods are slowly cooling in water tanks; after reprocessing, they could yield enough plutonium for five nuclear weapons. Last month's interrupted meeting in Geneva, the first between the two sides for nearly a year, came only after ex-President Jimmy Carter had been to Pyongyang and secured agreement for a freeze on further development while talks went on.

Washington proposes giving North Korea billions of dollars' worth of light water nuclear technology, which is less easily diverted to military purposes, in return for dismantling its existing facilities and making the fuel rods safe, preferably by removing them from the country.

In public, the Clinton administration insists that its negotiators will not allow the North Koreans to conceal the history of their programme, but South Korea is not alone in fearing that the US will agree to forget the past in exchange for a commitment by Kim Jong Il to go no further down the road embarked upon by his father.

Such a deal might be satisfactory in terms of domestic US politics. Washington could be seen to have kept North Korea at the same level as other 'threshold' nuclear states, such as India and Pakistan, which are careful not to say whether they have nuclear weapons. Unlike them, however, North Korea is a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and allowing the regime to preserve a similar ambiguity could wreck hopes of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the future.

The irony is that these dangers would never have become clear but for a miscalculation by North Korea. It signed the NPT in the mid- Eighties at the insistence of its nuclear supplier, the Soviet Union, but held back from a comprehensive safeguards agreement, that would have allowed the IAEA to inspect its facilities, until early 1992. Intelligence circles knew that in 1989 there had been a mysterious shutdown, lasting more than 200 days, of the same reactor which has since been defuelled, but had no way of establishing whether weapons-grade plutonium had been extracted. Yet it did not take long for the IAEA, once it arrived, to determine that nuclear material was missing.

However brilliantly North Korea has played its hand since, it does not seem that it wanted the discovery to be made. No doubt Kim Il Sung was advised that the treaty, and the Vienna-based agency that monitors compliance with the NPT from its headquarters on the Danube, were pretty toothless.

IAEA inspectors, they would have told him, can enter only 'declared facilities', defined by the host nation. They may be excluded from entire sites, or allowed to enter some buildings on a site but not others, or even kept out of certain rooms in a building while being permitted to inspect the rest. Pyongyang could win credit for opening its facilities, while keeping the past covered up.

The advice, however, was wrong on two counts. North Korea was ignorant of technical advances which enabled the inspectors to detect the history of its nuclear programme; and in its diplomatic isolation, the country was unaware of the impact of the Gulf war on the IAEA. The discovery that Iraq had come much closer to developing a nuclear weapon than anyone had imagined - and at least partly in facilities regularly inspected by the agency - was 'a shock and an awakening', in the words of a senior IAEA official.

By the time North Korea joined the inspection regime, the agency was no longer quite the passive creature Pyongyang imagined. It was going out of its way to find out whether countries had anything to hide, using more intensive scientific analysis, following up press reports, making more determined efforts to inspect undeclared facilities - and inviting intelligence agencies to pass on what they knew, a traffic the IAEA insists is one way. It was the agency's use of American satellite photographs that particularly enraged North Korea and caused it to give notice last year that it would pull out of the NPT. Pyongyang suspended its withdrawal only at the last minute, after intense diplomatic activity, but it has quit the IAEA.

Kim Il Sung probably never set out to challenge the integrity of the Non Proliferation Treaty, but he soon became aware that he had stumbled upon a potent threat. Next year the NPT comes up for review, 25 years after it was drawn up. More than 100 signatory nations will decide at a conference in New York next May whether to scrap it, amend it or renew it, and fault lines are already developing between the only nations permitted to hold nuclear weapons under the treaty - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - and the rest.

Apart from China, whose position is unclear, the 'Permanent Five' want the NPT renewed in perpetuity, prohibiting any other nation from having nuclear weapons for all time. That has raised nationalist hackles in several parts of the world, and set off arguments over the desirability of certain members of the group, mainly Britain and France, insisting on retaining their weapons. Permanent renewal, some fear, would remove any incentive for declared nuclear states to disarm, and the most likely outcome is that the NPT will be renewed for another 25 years. The one thing the treaty cannot afford at this stage is to suffer its first withdrawal by any signatory, even one as troublesome as North Korea.

It would be equally damaging, however, to allow Pyongyang to remain a party to the NPT while leaving unresolved the ambiguity it is fighting to maintain. Iran, also a signatory, is most frequently cited as a state that might be tempted to copy North Korea's example, but other candidates could appear over the next quarter of a century. The negotiations resuming today in Geneva are sure to be long and extremely difficult, but the American side will have to keep in mind that far more than the Clinton administration's prestige is at stake.

(Photograph omitted)