In another example of the brinkmanship that has characterized the year-long dispute over its nuclear ambitions, North Korea has avoided a possible trade embargo at the last hour by agreeing to open some of its nuclear installations to international inspectors.
North Korea gave its assent to the inspections late Friday, only hours before the start of a process that could have resulted in a trade blockade against the communist country.
"I'm encouraged," President Clinton said after his weekly radio address to the nation. "I want to see the details, but I'm encouraged."
At the center of the dispute is the suspicion that the government of Kim Il Sung is developing atomic weapons. The North Korean government had refused to grant visas to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency for an examination of seven nuclear sites.
Saturday, North Korea relented and granted the visas for the inspectors, who were scheduled to begin work Tuesday to determine if nuclear material has been diverted for possible military use.
The seven inspectors will leave Vienna today for Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the agency said.
The inspectors are due to collect information from North Korea on the seven declared sites, which have not been visited for a year. They will collect and replace film from automatic surveillance cameras and change seals on inspection equipment.
Hans Blix, the head of the international energy agency, had warned North Korea that he would refer the dispute to the Security Council if the visas were not granted by Monday.
But the agreement reached Friday night does not resolve the Pyongyang government's continuing refusal to let international inspectors visit two secret nuclear installations.
The agency suspects that the two sites would yield evidence that North Korea is trying to build atomic weapons in breach of the pledge it made when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The accord was reached after two days of talks between Tom Hubbard, deputy assistant secretary of state, and Ho Jung, North Korea's deputy representative to the United Nations.
In return for North Korea's limited action, the United States has agreed to suspend annual military exercises with South Korea. The United States also will hold a third round of high-level talks with North Korea in Geneva on improving relations, starting March 21.
North and South Korea are meanwhile to begin working-level talks Tuesday with the goal of exchanging envoys, administration officials said.
North and South Korea do not have diplomatic relations. The mission of the two envoys will be to put into force a declaration that the two Koreas signed last December.
The Koreas agreed under the declaration to forswear dangerous nuclear technologies, like reprocessing and enrichment, which have military applications.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam on Friday offered to conduct joint economic projects with the North once the nuclear issue was resolved.
Kim said his offer of joint projects would include manufacturing, agricultural, construction and energy areas.
At the conclusion of the talks late Friday, Hubbard described the accord as "only the first step toward the resolution of the nuclear issue."
"But we are pleased that these needed inspections will in fact begin" Tuesday, he added.
Administration officials say the agreement means that North Korea has fallen back into step with the basic understanding it had reached with the United States in December.
That understanding provided for a new round of high-level talks between the Clinton administration and the North Korean government on resolving nuclear issues and improving relations once North Korea had reopened its declared nuclear sites to inspectors and begun a dialogue with the South.
At the round of talks now scheduled to start in Geneva on March 21, the United States will offer to help end North Korea's international isolation by promoting trade and aid links and holding out the prospect of eventual diplomatic recognition for Pyongyang.
But in return, administration officials say North Korea must allow the energy agency to visit the two secret nuclear sites it wants to inspect, abandon any covert nuclear weapons program it may have started and agree to switch over to technologies in its civil nuclear program that offer less scope for military misuse.