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Doubts raised about buying off N. Korea in nuclear deal

For a country the United States calls desperate, backward, isolated and paranoid, North Korea bagged quite a bundle of rewards for giving up its nuclear program.

President Clinton said the deal makes the world safer. But people still may wonder why Washington is being so generous to a Communist regime also labeled a military menace and a sponsor of terrorism.

North Korea, after all, launched a war in 1950 that cost more than 50,000 American lives, and it still makes threatening noises at Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

Still, the Clinton administration struck a deal that gives North Korea $4-billion worth of nuclear power reactors, years of heavy oil for energy production, new diplomatic links and hope for economic rescue.

Ralph Clough, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Asia, suggests a reason by asking a question.

"What's the alternative?"

War or internal collapse in North Korea, for two. Either would be paid for in lives. Another possibility was letting North Korea continue on a path to nuclear arms.

"The cost of any of those would certainly be greater than the price we have paid for this deal," said Clough, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

There is no question, though, that this kind of bargain is more than unusual. It is unprecedented for the United States to, in effect, buy off a country that has been declared by the United Nations to be in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In exchange for abiding by treaty provisions that other signatories are expected to live by without condition, North Korea is getting not only a modern energy production system free of charge, but also a means of rescuing its crumbling economy.

The result, says Jon Wolfsthal of the private Arms Control Association, is that the North Korean system is likely to survive some years longer than it might have otherwise.

That is not bad, Wolfsthal said, because it makes it more likely that when North Korea does shed its totalitarian system or even integrate with South Korea the change will be less jolting, less chaotic, more manageable for its neighbors.

But others would argue that it simply buys time for the North to sharpen its swords.

What makes this deal all the more remarkable is that the nuclear program North Korea is giving up may or may not be the security threat it has been made out to be. North Korea denies that its program has any military application. The U.S. government itself says that while it believes North Korea has enough plutonium to make one or two bombs, it does not know for sure.

Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator of the deal, said U.S. officials do not "exclude the possibility" that North Korea may have a bomb or two.

But the important point, Gallucci contends, is that whether the North Koreans have such a weapon or not, this accord will provide some assurance that they won't build any in the future. That is so because international inspectors are to be allowed to verify that the existing nuclear facilities are dismantled over a period of about 10 years and that the North's nuclear past be revealed more fully.

Hans Blix, director general of the U.N. agency that will be responsible for verifying North Korean compliance, said he welcomes the deal, mainly because it is better than the alternative of no accord.

Blix acknowledged, though, that it means the world will have to continue to live with doubt about whether North Korea already has stored some nuclear arms.