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The price of protection

The Clinton administration paid a dear price for its nuclear agreement with North Korea. The Communist regime won billions of dollars in economic rewards plus priceless political advantages in return for a promise to freeze its nuclear program and allow inspections to which it was already formally obligated under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Given the grim alternatives, though, the agreement is a good one for the United States and the rest of the world. Its critics are ignoring the great likelihood that the failure to make such an agreement would have carried a far higher price.

The Clinton administration isn't responsible for the North Korea threat. It inherited the crisis from previous U.S. administrations and other governments that chose to ignore North Korea's developing nuclear program rather than risk a showdown.

Once experts determined that North Korea might now be capable of developing several nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration had only two other alternatives: It could have tried to impose an end to the nuclear program _ and run the risk of a new war on the Korean peninsula. Or it could have followed the lead of its predecessors and tried to ignore the growing threat _ and run the risk of creating the world's most dangerously unstable nuclear power.

Given those unacceptable alternatives, the administration chose the proper course. Special ambassador Robert Gallucci's negotiators say the deal provides international inspectors with the access they need to assure that North Korea can't continue a massive nuclear program in secret. Scientists will have to judge just how solid those assurances really are.

But in purely political terms, the agreement has advantages that go well beyond the nuclear issue. North Korea's isolated society will be opening itself to the world in unprecedented ways. In the long run, integrating Pyongyang into the world economy and creating new links between North and South Korea may be the best way of making that part of the world safer.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, who has yet to see the Clinton administration action he couldn't find fault with, says he wants the next Congress to "take a close look at this agreement, . . . including the long-term implications and the cost to taxpayers." Fair enough. But any honest examination will also attempt to measure the long-term price we would have paid for failing to find a peaceful way to bring North Korea's nuclear program under control.

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