North Korea has forced the world's hand. Hans Blix, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, informed the United Nations on Thursday that he could no longer determine whether or not North Korea had diverted material from its reactor to nuclear weapons. The day before, Blix had offered the Koreans a final line of retreat, but they refused.
The only reasonable inference is that North Korea has built, and plans to keep, nuclear weapons in defiance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The director-general has waited patiently, acting carefully. In February, 1992, the IAEA had good reason to suspect that the Koreans had nuclear ambitions. The IAEA found evidence that the Koreans had extracted weapons-usable plutonium from their reactor during a 100-day shutdown in 1989. The North Koreans "confessed," but said that they had separated only about 3 1/2 ounces of the explosive metal. Using sensitive analyses, the IAEA knew that it was more likely that many pounds had been diverted. The apparent discrepancy could have been resolved by measurements of two waste storage sites in the Yongbyon nuclear complex, but North Korea refused.
Blix's only remaining choice was to wait until North Korea discharged spent fuel from its reactor, and then to demand examination of 300 carefully selected fuel rods. In these the IAEA would find written the radioactive history of the 1989 shutdown and clues to the Korean arsenal. The North Koreans, however, have deliberately extracted these fuel rods without observers present, and have probably scrambled the order of the rods so that, as Blix wrote the U.N. secretary general, "future measurements would be meaningless . . . and would not permit the agency to ascertain whether nuclear material from the reactor had been diverted."
The IAEA has acted correctly. It did not declare safeguards irrevocably lost until North Korea acted to destroy the isotopic record. The U.S. government has also acted impeccably. To no avail, the Clinton Administration made clear to North Korea that we would respond to nuclear honesty by facilitating an end to the North's isolation.
The time for other measures has arrived, starting with President Clinton's call for economic sanctions.
Kim Il-sung, North Korea's dictator, has said that sanctions are an act of war, and he threatens a second, and nuclear, Korean conflict, which would annihilate North Korea and destroy some of the South. One may reasonably doubt that his response will be so swift and violent. He has played his cards too shrewdly these last months for us to believe that he is quite as irrational as he would like us to assume.
Sanctions, while short of war, are designed to compel North Korea to do something that it otherwise would not. A list of demanded acts must precede a resolution imposing sanctions. Inspection of the reactor's fuel is useless; examination of the waste dumps will do nothing about existing weapons.
Sanctions should be aimed at forcing the North to take three steps: The nuclear weapons they have must be dismantled and the fissile fuel handed over to the IAEA; the full records of the North Korean nuclear programs, peaceful and military, including supplier lists and personnel files, must be made available to the United Nations and the IAEA; and all plutonium and refined uranium in the country must be removed from North Korea, just as it was from Iraq.
China and Japan are the keys. If they support sanctions, sanctions can succeed; if they do not, necessary American efforts could lead directly to war. The Clinton Administration and the IAEA have set a correct course; it is up to the rest of the world to follow.