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Stormy outlook for Korea accord

PERHAPS YOU need to be a long-range meteorologist to understand US-North Korean diplomacy on nuclear weapons. The scene changes as swiftly as the sky over the ocean on a windy autumn day. One thing we should all agree on: The weather is worse than a decade ago when President Bill Clinton, aided by the intervention of former President Jimmy Carter, manage to negotiate with the late President Kim Il Sung a nuclear freeze that has probably stopped the North building a good 30 nuclear weapons; and South Korea embarked on its so-called ''sunshine" policy of political reconciliation.

Early in its tenure, the Bush administration decided to throw the Clinton agreement out the window, and North Korea followed suit. Still, despite all the posturing by both sides since then, a nuclear winter has been avoided. It seemed all along that both North Korea and the United States have wanted an agreement. But macho politics trumped common sense, until last week when the outlines of a new deal appeared to take shape.

But one key issue is holding up a final accord. The administration is balking at the North Korean demand to build it two modern, non-plutonium-producing nuclear power plants. This is just nonsensical. This was part of the original Clinton-Carter deal. Indeed, soon after the administration came to power, it proudly sent a deputy assistant secretary of state to be photographed standing by the half-built reactors. But at that time it looked as if Secretary of State Colin Powell had a fair chance of winning the internal battle with Vice President Dick Cheney not to abort the Clinton deal.

The Republicans from the beginning have had a powerful internal lobby out to sabotage all deals. A Republican controlled Congress made it often impossible for the Clinton administration to honor the deal in the way it was conceived. Promised oil deliveries and food supplies were repeatedly delayed at Congress's instigation. The Republicans forced Clinton to break his promise to end sanctions, delaying action on this until 1999 when they were only partially lifted. There was the blockage on talking about ways to help the North with outside electricity supplies from the South, to tide it over until the new reactors were built. Not least there was a slowdown on the building of the new reactors. By 2002 construction was five years behind schedule.

The slowdowns persuaded North Korea to ratchet up confrontation. Confrontation, they obviously decided, was the only way to get results. Whether it was digging an enormous hole that convinced the CIA the North was about to test nuclear triggers (wrongly as it turned out, after paying a huge sum to be allowed to inspect it). Or test flying a long-range rocket over Japan, which was what persuaded Congress finally to ease the economic embargo.

All these delaying tactics of the Republican Congress in Clinton's time were then subsumed into the active hostility of the Cheney-John Bolton-George Bush policy of the ''axis of evil." Powell was pushed aside and Washington leaned on Seoul to slow down its policy of political reconciliation and prohibited it from keeping a promise to send electricity to the North.

For those few who watched the changing weather pattern in the North it came as no big surprise that in 2002 Pyongyang decided to abrogate the 1994 agreement and take its plutonium-producing plant out of mothballs, in order, it said, to provide much needed electricity from its own resources. It is also argued -- though this is disputed -- that the North threatened to build as well an enriching plant capable of producing weapons-grade uranium. In September last year Pyongyang told the UN that it had built a number of nuclear weapons.

It has taken us all this time to get back to square two. Thanks to some clever Chinese diplomacy both sides have agreed on the framework of a new deal. But still Washington demands that it will only take a new look at the building of civilian nuclear power generating plants once Pyongyang agrees to return to membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agree to the safeguards of the International Atomic Agency.

To get to square one Washington will have to take one more jump and join each side's demands as a package deal, and quickly too. So much time has been wasted in useless and unproductive posturing. What has been gained? Nothing, except that the even more complicated negotiations with Iran, a potentially much more dangerous adversary, has been made more difficult.

Jonathan Power is a London-based syndicated columnist.

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