The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has given North Korea one last chance to halt its nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang should seize this opportunity and agree to negotiate. On Monday, the IAEA passed a resolution calling for North Korea to put its nuclear facilities back in mothballs, readmit IAEA inspectors and abandon immediately all attempts to develop nuclear bombs.

The resolution, adopted unanimously at an emergency board meeting in Vienna, is a stern rebuke to North Korea for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. At the same time, however, it gives Pyongyang breathing space, leaving the door open for a peaceful resolution of the crisis triggered by its decision last month to reactivate a nuclear complex in Yongbyon.

The IAEA is right to focus on a diplomatic solution, particularly at a time when North Korea is playing a game of brinkmanship. There is every reason to believe that the reclusive and impoverished Stalinist state is trying, by fanning the crisis, to gain concessions in economic aid and security assurances. Taking hardline steps, such as sanctions, at this time is playing into Pyongyang’s hands.

North Korea must know that its violations of the NPT and other nonnuclear agreements will not be tolerated. Last October, Pyongyang admitted, confronted with evidence produced by U.S. officials, that it was pushing a separate program to enrich uranium. And beginning in mid-December, it took a series of steps to restart its old plutonium-based program in open defiance of the nonproliferation regime: first, deciding to revive facilities mothballed under a 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States; removing seals and surveillance equipment; and finally, expelling two IAEA officials who had been watching for any signs of noncompliance.

In light of these violations, the IAEA resolution was expected. More specifically, it calls for, among other things, (1) sealing anew the facilities in question and taking safeguard measures such as letting the inspectors return; (2) declaring its uranium enrichment program and abandoning all plans to develop nuclear weapons; and (3) permitting inspection of all nuclear materials.

The resolution, however, stops short of referring North Korea to the U.N. Security Council — a move proposed earlier by the U.S. That is a wise decision. A council debate, if it takes place, will almost certainly lead to economic and other sanctions against the North Koreans. The U.S. has backed off from its tough position and embraced a measured approach favored by South Korea and Japan, as well as China and Russia.

Now is the time to give diplomacy a chance. A get-tough policy of the kind championed by Bush administration “hawks” such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could escalate tensions. Last month, Mr. Rumsfeld said the U.S. was capable of waging two wars — with Iraq and North Korea — at the same time. The statement, however, backfired, arousing anti-American feelings in South Korea and threatening the solidarity of the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

The right approach for the three nations is to close ranks and convince North Korea that it can gain nothing by continuing its nuclear activities. Pyongyang has cut off its own nose to spite its face, so to speak, by breaking the 1994 accord, a quid-pro-quo deal that called for the construction of two “nonproliferation” light-water reactors, as well as annual supplies of 500,000 tons of heavy oil during the construction period, in exchange for a halt to the plutonium-based nuclear program.

The oil shipments were canceled after a covert uranium enrichment program — a clear violation of the 1994 accord — had been disclosed. Pyongyang says it is necessary to restart the frozen reactor — an experimental type that can produce weapons-grade plutonium — to increase energy supplies. But the 5-megawatt research reactor is no substitute for a full-scale energy reactor. Moreover, extracting plutonium through the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel will take considerable time.

It seems that North Korea’s decision to reactivate its nuclear facilities is designed to get a better deal under threat of a nuclear confrontation — the same kind of brinkmanship that brought the Korean Peninsula close to war in 1994. The U.S. and other countries involved should stay calm and seek dialogue with Pyongyang.

What is needed now is a nonconfrontational effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. To that end, it is essential to conclude a new nonnuclear agreement calling for stricter inspection measures. In this regard, a reported South Korean plan to provide Pyongyang with a security guarantee in exchange for a complete halt to its nuclear programs deserves serious consideration.

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