North Korea continues to stall on the crucial issue of opening its nuclear facilities to international inspection, adding to well-founded anxieties that it is rushing to develop nuclear weapons.
Hints have already come from South Korea and the United States that this prospect, with its implicit threat to stability in Northeast Asia, won't be passively accepted. The Pentagon has taken the unusual step of letting it be known that contingency plans for a military strike are being drawn up.
Does North Korea take these warnings seriously? Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, said this week that he came away from a meeting with dictator Kim Il Sung "disturbed and dismayed" by what he saw as a greater interest in "avoiding a satisfactory resolution of the nuclear problem than in facilitating one." North Korea has said nothing publicly to contradict that gloomy assessment.
SOUTH'S MOVE: There was a golden opportunity to do so last week, after South Korea's President Roh Tae Woo declared that his country is now nuclear-free. The nuclear weapons Roh was referring to were American. Because the presence of these weapons has never been officially acknowledged, no announcement of their withdrawal was made. But President Bush, in a comment that can be taken as confirmatory, noted that he had "heard what Roh said and I'm not about to argue with him."
The U.S. and South Korean governments have called for international inspections in both Koreas to verify not just the absence of nuclear weapons but also that neither country has facilities for reprocessing nuclear fuel to produce weapons-quality material. Specifically, the two allies want North Korea to sign an international nuclear safeguards agreement to allow unimpeded inspection of its nuclear plants. What they have got instead is an expanding recital of preconditions and evasions, intended to buy more time as work progresses to develop a nuclear bomb.
NORTH'S NON-MOVE: The historic agreement signed by the two Koreas Dec. 13 was supposed to open the way to reconciliation after an era of intense and bloody hostility, set in motion by the political division of the peninsula at the end of World War II. But the agreement did not address nuclear issues, despite compelling evidence of North Korea's all-out efforts to develop an independent nuclear force. That capability concerns not only South Korea and the United States but also Japan, China and Russia, all neighbors of Korea.
The time has come to take this issue to the United Nations. North Korea, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, continues to defy treaty requirements on inspection of its nuclear facilities. What Solarz calls "incontrovertible" evidence shows that it is pressing ahead to develop reprocessing technology so that it can produce weapons-grade fuel. North Korea's noncompliance with the requirements of the treaty can legitimately be seen as a threat to international peace and security.
The U.N. Security Council exists to deal with such threats. Its proper response in this matter, for starters, is to impose economic sanctions to force Pyongyang promptly to open its nuclear plants to international inspection. It's clear that North Korea, one of the last bastions of Stalinism, has no intention of voluntarily playing by the rules of nuclear non-proliferation. It will have to be pushed into accepting its responsibilities. The time to start pushing--hard--has come.