President Clinton's deal to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program, hailed only three months ago as one of the Administration's main foreign policy achievements, is in danger of falling apart.
Disputes between the United States and North Korea about what the deal means and requires have escalated steadily. On Tuesday, for the first time, North Korea publicly threatened to start up its now-frozen nuclear program once again next month if the impasse is not resolved.
Clinton Administration officials find themselves again meeting in top-level strategy sessions on North Korea. And, in response to North Korean threats, they are issuing their own warnings that the United States might have to seek economic sanctions against Pyongyang--the approach that was abandoned after former President Jimmy Carter's trip there last June.
"If they refuel their nuclear reactor and break the freeze, we would immediately consult with our (South Korean and Japanese) allies, with a view to going back to the (United Nations) Security Council once again," a senior Administration official involved in North Korea policy told The Times this week.
Another top official said: "If they break the freeze, everything is off the table."
American and North Korean officials are scheduled to meet in Berlin this weekend for more talks.
But Administration officials said they doubt that there will be any progress there, and most of them expect North Korea to engage in a new round of brinkmanship with the United States over the next month.
"I think the whole thing is going to get very serious," said Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who talks regularly to North Korean officials.
The focus of the deal signed last October in Geneva was an agreement that the United States and its allies would provide North Korea over the next decade with two new, safer light-water nuclear reactors.
In exchange, the Pyongyang regime agreed to halt its nuclear program, which uses graphite-moderated reactors. These produce much more weapons-grade plutonium than the light-water reactors that North Korea would get under its U.S. deal.
The current impasse is supposed to be resolved by April 21. That is the date set out in the deal for completion of a detailed contract with North Korea on the light-water reactors. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that, if the reactor problems are not solved by then, "we could not but resume the operation of some nuclear facilities."
On the surface, at least, the current impasse is over the Administration's insistence that the two new reactors, worth $4 billion, must come from South Korea.
"There's no alternative to a South Korean reactor," Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee last week. "On financial grounds and political and technical grounds, it's going to have to be a South Korean reactor, period. We will stand by that."
But North Korea is refusing to accept reactors from its longtime rival. Last week, Pyongyang's official news service said the idea of bringing South Korean reactors onto its soil "speaks for the sinister political purpose" of the Seoul government.
"It's looked on by North Korea as a Trojan horse," observed Harrison. "The South Koreans could use their technology as a political lever," working inside North Korea to promote the South.
Robert L. Gallucci, the ambassador who negotiated the original deal on the Administration's behalf, said it was clearly understood in the Geneva talks that the light-water reactors would come from South Korea. But North Korea has retorted that the written agreement does not specify what kind of reactors it will get.
Underlying the dispute over the new reactors are two much broader problems stemming from the October deal.
The first is that the agreement did little, if anything, to ease the poisonous relations between North and South Korea. The deal required Pyongyang to open a dialogue with Seoul, something it has so far been unwilling to do. And the bickering over South Korean reactors stems from Seoul's desire to show North Korea how advanced its capitalist economy is--and Pyongyang's unwillingness to acknowledge that.
"This dispute is not about reactors or about $4 billion," said David Kay, a Washington expert on nuclear proliferation. "It's about (North Korea's) view of their supreme legitimacy over South Korea."
The second problem is that the October deal was arranged so it will be carried out in steps over the next decade. That gives North Korea a chance to bargain for more concessions at each of these milestones.
"In fact, what we have is a 10-year continuing negotiation, or a series of back-to-back negotiations," said Arnold Kanter of the Santa Monica-based RAND think tank.
And at each step, those unhappy with the deal in the first place--in Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington--have a chance to reopen the debate and to try to challenge the deal again.
There is now a potential compromise being floated in Washington to settle the crisis over what kind of reactor North Korea gets--but so far, neither Pyongyang nor Seoul will agree to it. It's called the "plain brown wrapper" solution. North Korea would get a reactor made in South Korea, but the equipment would not say "made in South Korea" on its label. The reactor might be provided by an American firm, with South Korean companies as subcontractors.
"They (the North Koreans) are not going to say this now, but I believe this would be acceptable to them," Harrison said. "The supervisory technicians going to North Korea would be American with some South Koreans added in."
There have been hints that the Administration would be happy if South Korea gave in and went along with the "plain brown wrapper" compromise, but senior officials insist they will not pressure Seoul.
Even if the deal is salvaged this time, it may be headed for the brink again later on. A senior Administration official said a steady hand will be required in Washington, "not only over months but over years."
"The agreement is extremely uncertain on a number of important elements," Kay said. "And the North Koreans are going to do what they do in other cases--they're going to try to sweeten the deal."