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President Clinton has declared that "North Korea must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons."

Such strong language is unfortunate, since the United States is unlikely to back it up.Some intelligence agencies contend that North Korea may already have two bombs. Besides, Pyongyang could bow to current American and U.N. demands and still proceed with its nuclear program.

We insist that North Korea stop violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it has signed, and accept international inspections.

To obtain these limited measures, we have offered some concessions, such as canceling U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers.

Further concessions could do more harm than good - not because North Korea may reject the demands but because it might agree.

Inspections will not prevent North Koreans from developing weapons. Giving them concessions for simply agreeing to honor a contract will show them how effectively they can play the nuclear card.

Washington has threatened economic sanctions. North Korea, already destitute, has little trade to lose, but a cutoff of hard currency transfers from Koreans in Japan would hurt.

China opposes sanctions and South Korea is hesitant.

To reinstate treaty inspections, North Korea seeks more benefits: economic aid and diplomatic recognition.

If we start giving in order to get, we should ask for much more than a commitment to a treaty Pyongyang has flouted.

Experience with Iraq shows how ineffective the inspections under the treaty are.

For years before the Persian Gulf War, Iraq complied with international monitors. Only after the surrender accord allowed U.N. inspectors to snoop for previously unknown facilities did we discover that Saddam Hussein had an amazingly big nuclear weapons program.

Compared with North Korea, Iraq is an open society. No matter how much inspectors or U.S. satellites might discover about North Korea's atomic program, we could never be sure that more weapons were not being developed in secret lairs.

North Korea has few funds for secret projects, and sanctions, not concessions, will best crimp its resources.

Relying on the nonproliferation treaty is also foolish because it would allow the country to keep spent fuel from its reactors. Pyongyang could defy the treaty at any time and reprocess this stockpile into nuclear bombs.

North Korea is no ordinary outlaw country. Since invading the South in 1950, it has behaved with consistent recklessness: seizing the USS Pueblo in 1968, trying twice to assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung Hee (and killing his wife in one of the attempts), hacking two American officers to death in 1976, murdering half the South Korean Cabinet with a bomb in Rangoon in 1983, digging infiltration tunnels under the demilitarized zone, blowing up Korean Air Lines Flight 858 in 1987 and frequently kidnapping South Korean citizens.

Why should we expect the most Orwellian government in the world to become responsible if it gains concessions just for reversing its violations?

Some Western diplomats worry that pressure would provoke the North Koreans to lash out.

This risk, bad as it may be, is no harder to face now than later - after they have had more time to stock a nuclear arsenal.

Others think the regime is on the verge of collapse. If so, rewarding its foul play would do more to postpone change than speed it.

The West should only offer North Korea new concessions, including economic aid, for a credible accounting and surrender of all its plutonium (including nuclear weapons), for surrendering any spent fuel its energy reactors produce in the future and for allowing unlimited inspections like those the United Nations is carrying out in Iraq.

We should offer nothing if Pyongyang agrees only to meet the obligations of the nonproliferation treaty.

If it stonewalls, we should impose economic sanctions.

If we can't enforce the sanctions, and if we have no intention of imposing unlimited investigations by force (as we have in Iraq), President Clinton should cool his rhetoric.

If we have to learn to live with North Korean nuclear weapons, it does no good to growl like a paper tiger.