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Sizing up who won and lost in N. Korea deal

The Clinton administration said last week that the agreement it signed with North Korea was about nuclear non-proliferation _ a bargain that made Asia and the 83,000 U.S. troops based there safe from a hostile state with a bomb and a 40-year-old grudge.

Maybe so.

But critics are already saying it only pushed the most urgent non-proliferation issues five years or more down the road.

"It's a leap of faith," one State Department official conceded, a bet that when Kim Il Sung was tucked into a glass coffin in July, capitalist spirits rose from the grave _ and that the bargain will give North Korea time to accomplish a Vietnam-style revival, a communist system with lots of Japanese television plants.

The heart of the deal is a minutely calibrated schedule under which every Western concession, from opening up trade to pouring the concrete foundation of two new, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors, is met by an equivalent act by the North Koreans.

Over the next decade, they are supposed to dismantle their nuclear facilities and ship out, rod by rod, their inventory of spent nuclear fuel, the potential stuff of weapons. If it works, Bill Clinton will be the biggest winner, a master negotiator on a critical security issue. If it fails, no one will probably know for five years. Here are some other winners and losers.

Big winner:

Kim Jong Il

Until last week, things looked pretty bleak for the "Dear Leader" as he struggled to fill the shoes of his late father, the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. Visitors to the North in recent years always got the impression that even the North's elite viewed Kim Jr. as a pygmy among dictators.

"All of a sudden he looks as brilliant as dad," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea scholar at Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute. "He not only outmaneuvered the Americans, he talked them out of a few billion dollars."

Actually, it is the South Koreans and the Japanese who will fork over most of the $4-billion for two new nuclear reactors, built as compensation for the nuclear facilities that the North has agreed to eventually destroy.

But the hated United States has agreed to supply, gratis, enormous quantities of oil. That will get factories going again _ provide enormous potential for black-market profit by the North Korean elite, making that group another winner.

North Korea's peasants aren't expected to benefit much. Few houses are oil-heated.

Lucky bystanders:

the Japanese

The Japanese government has been enormously reluctant to impose heavy sanctions on the North. That would require military reinforcements, and demands that Japan back up U.S. forces with supplies, airfields and maybe even troops.

Failure to do so would widen rifts with America. But cooperating would probably rip the government apart, and perhaps invite terrorism from that part of Japan's Korean population that is loyal to the North.

Japan's biggest fear, of course, is that if the North collapses there would be a flood of refugees, about as welcome on Japanese shores as spoiled fish. And few business executives in Japan are sorry to see the North Korean regime propped up. It delays the day that Korea unifies and becomes, potentially, a much fiercer competitor.


South Korea

South Koreans are of two minds about the North, which is brother and enemy. Hard-liners in the intelligence agencies and the military think Kim Jong Il's government is on the verge of collapse and needs only a little push. "This agreement is madness," said one former senior official with close ties to the South Korean president, Kim Young Sam. "It is aiding the country we've been locked in combat with for decades."

But the South's business bosses have a different interest: Preventing the same collapse the hard-liners pine for. They don't want to have to rebuild a bankrupt country's non-existent infrastructure. Now they can build power plants and oil delivery systems in the North slowly, while learning their way around the North's decrepit factories.

Big losers:

arms controllers

Critics of the agreement say it encourages rogue states from Iraq and Iran to Pakistan to keep alive their dreams of a bomb of their own. The United States has agreed to reward a country for obeying a treaty it signed years ago _ in this case, the 25-year-old treaty intended to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. Simply by threatening to withdraw from that treaty, the North has won $4-billion in reactors, billions in fuel oil and an end to the trade restrictions that have contributed so much to its isolation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency feigned enthusiasm, but many of its officials said the concession on delaying an inspection for years would soon come back to haunt them.