The Clinton administration is trying to work out a deal in which North Korea would agree not to test-launch its new long-range missile and in return would be rewarded with an easing or lifting of a decades-old U.S. trade embargo, U.S. officials and North Korea experts told the Los Angeles Times.
Under this approach, North Korea would promise a moratorium on testing its new Taepodong 2 missile, which has a long enough range to strike many parts of Asia or even Alaska. In exchange, the United States would remove North Korea from the provisions of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which for the past 39 years has barred all U.S. trade with the isolated Communist regime.
Such an arrangement would resolve the immediate crisis over North Korea's plans to test its new missile. But it would leave other issues unsettled and fall far short of the more comprehensive proposal, offered to North Korean officials last spring by U.S. envoy William J. Perry, that administration officials had hoped would change North Korea's pattern of threatening behavior toward its neighbors.
The new offer has not yet been accepted by North Korea, which U.S. officials say is still proceeding with preparations to test its new missile within a few weeks. Yet the prospect of such a limited bargain has triggered debate in Washington, where the administration's policy toward North Korea has often been under attack in the Republican-led Congress.
Administration officials argue that heading off the North Korean missile test is an important objective by itself, because it would calm growing anxieties in other Asian countries _ particularly Japan, which was rattled last year when a missile from North Korea flew over its airspace.
However, critics are already complaining that the Clinton administration would be giving up too much to North Korea for merely a promise not to test the missile. The United States, they say, should obtain more important assurances that North Korea won't deploy its new missile.
"The possibility of a (missile) test has been hyped up too much," said Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The big issue is whether these missiles are operational or deployed."
"Weapons systems can be deployed without testing," asserted Douglas Paal of the Washington-based Asia Pacific Policy Center. "With computer simulation, less and less has to be tested. . . . The administration is taking on the immediate problem, without dealing with the long-term problem."
Paal and Manning were officials in the Bush administration.
Lifting the U.S. trade embargo against North Korea was one of the elements in the broad package of proposals put forward earlier this year by Perry, the former defense secretary whom Clinton appointed to conduct a formal review of North Korea policy.
Perry's approach was to offer the Pyongyang regime an array of incentives in exchange for steps by North Korea aimed at reducing military tensions with South Korea, Japan and the United States.
By contrast, the U.S. proposal now being considered would be a piecemeal one.
North Korea would get a lifting of the trade embargo, and not other elements in Perry's package, such as moves toward establishing diplomatic relations. And North Korea would agree only to a moratorium on testing, and not to broader changes the Clinton administration has been seeking, such as limits on the range and payload of missiles and mutual reductions of military threats.
Any agreement by the administration to remove North Korea from the Trading With the Enemy Act, which provides the legal basis for the U.S. trade embargo, would have to be approved by Congress.