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PLEDGE FOR N-FREEZE GETS WARM RESPONSE

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A "very happy" President Clinton is suspending a threat of sanctions and preparing to offer North Korea a way out of its isolation in return for its pledge to freeze a nuclear program that has given the world a bad case of the jitters.

Clinton and his senior advisers tried to project calm caution Wednesday after receiving a message from Pyongyang that North Korea would meet U.S. conditions for a freeze. But there was no denying a sense of potential reconciliation with the hard-line communist regime.Former President Jimmy Carter, who went to the Korean peninsula to get the two sides to step back from a confrontation, was simply exuberant. "This was one of those perfect agreements where both sides won and got what they wanted," he said. "Nobody blinked."

But Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas was both skeptical and critical, accusing the Democratic administration of "apparent readiness to throw in the towel regarding North Korea's well-known nuclear ambitions."

"There is no basis in history or experience to believe more talk and more delays will limit North Korea's nuclear ambitions," he said in a statement.

Two rounds of high-level talks with North Korea last year failed to resolve the dispute over a nuclear program that the West fears could lead to the spread of dangerous weapons to a raft of dictatorial regimes.

North Korean President Kim Il Sung offered the freeze to Carter, and the administration then asked Pyongyang in a message to confirm the promise and also to accept U.S.conditions for high-level talks.

The response was positive. "We got everything we wanted," said an administration official before Clinton went on television to announce the results and to take reporters' questions.

He said it was a "very important step forward" toward defusing the tense, months-long dispute with the communist regime.

In return, Clinton said the United States would suspend its campaign at the United Nations to punish Pyongyang with economic sanctions and would resume high-level talks with North Korea next month in Geneva.

"We have the basis to go forward and I'm very happy about it," Clinton said. "The world will be the winner if we can resolve this, but we've not done it yet."

Clinton administration officials said Thursday the nuclear freeze would be monitored by international inspectors.

The reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex essentially was shut down a month ago. It is not being reloaded with fuel rods, nor is fuel being removed, the officials said. A few rods that the International Atomic Energy Agency considers insignificant were removed.

Meanwhile, South Korea on Thursday welcomed North Korea's promise to freeze its nuclear program but asked its communist rival to go one step further to resolve the nuclear standoff.

Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo urged North Korea to also allow U.N. inspectors to examine two sites where the North is suspected of making nuclear weapons.

"We believe that a foundation has been laid for a negotiated settlement," he told reporters.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, says a check of the sites could prove whether the North has diverted plutonium that could be used in nuclear arms.

For 15 months the North has refused to allow full inspections of its nuclear sites, though it asserts its program is peaceful. It said as recently as last week that it would never open the two sites.

Clinton and President Kim Young-sam of South Korea discussed the developments in a 20-minute telephone call, the White House said. The presidents agreed the news was a "very positive development" but noted that it was not a solution to the nuclear problem.

In the past, North Korea has played a cat-and-mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency, admitting inspectors but refusing to let them conduct a comprehensive search. Specifically, fuel rods removed from an experimental reactor were kept from the inspectors and they also were denied access to waste sites.

The inspectors were trying to determine if plutonium was diverted to nuclear use before 1989. Some analysts are convinced North Korea has at least one atomic bomb and may be playing for time in order to build an arsenal of a half-dozen by the end of the year.