U.S. is poised to seek U.N. sanctions if N. Korea refuses nuclear inspections

February 06, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The United States is moving closer to seeking United Nations sanctions against North Korea over its refusal to allow nuclear inspections -- a confrontation that could pose a serious test of President Clinton's skill and determination in world affairs.

A month after North Korea agreed to cooperate on nuclear inspections, the Communist regime is running out of time to live up to its commitments, U.S. officials said.

"I think we're getting very close to the end of the road on this one," a senior administration official said late last week.

The imposition of sanctions would threaten the already tense Korean peninsula with the possibility of renewed war, since North Korea has threatened to retaliate and warned last week of "catastrophic consequences."

North Korea has balked repeatedly at the kind of inspections an international nuclear watchdog agency wants to conduct at the seven nuclear facilities that the regime has publicly disclosed.

Yun Ho Jin, the North Korean envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Reuters on Friday that there was "no immediate prospect" of letting the agency conduct unconditional inspections at the sites. The conflicting positions of the international agency and Pyongyang "cannot be merged at the moment," he said.

Neither the IAEA nor the United States has given up hope of North Korean cooperation, but some administration officials suspect North Korea has made a strategic decision to proceed with building a nuclear arsenal.

Such a turn would have serious consequences for the security of Asia and the United States, which is committed to the defense of South Korea and Japan.

Right now, the administration is trying to get China to help bring North Korea around. But it also has quietly begun to sound out other members of the United Nations Security Council on imposing sanctions.

Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, met with ambassadors from China and the other permanent members of the Security Council Friday in what was officially billed as an update session but involved a broader discussion of future actions.

Separately, several mid-level officials met with envoys from South Korea and Japan to assess North Korea's intentions.

Top U.S. officials have said that for months that if the international atomic agency decides its system for monitoring North Korea's nuclear program has broken down, the U.N. Security Council would have to consider sanctions.

The Clinton administration hasn't decided if these should be limited or broad to start with. The hardest hitting would be a cutoff of oil supplies from China.

Importance of China

Given the stakes, the imposition of sanctions will require consistent and resolute preparation.

"How you get to sanctions is very important," Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters, citing the crucial importance of China.

Some analysts and members of Congress fear that the administration has not worked hard enough in laying the diplomatic and political groundwork for the coming confrontation.

And President Clinton's record in previous foreign crises has not inspired confidence in his ability to bring pressure on North Korea.

Mr. Clinton "may have to threaten more than he wants to and be more systematically forthcoming" toward North Korea, said John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

The administration, he said, "is still handling this in routine channels and really isn't bearing down on producing an outcome. They've got to upgrade the level of effort."

"What I'm afraid [the administration] may not appreciate is that we may have to scare everyone in Asia and the United States more than they want to be scared," he said.

China, North Korea's neighbor and biggest ally, has been unwilling to support sanctions, although it has not threatened publicly to use its veto power in the Security Council to block them.

The United States is in a difficult position in trying to get China's support, since the Clinton administration is threatening to cancel Beijing's favorable trade status over human rights.

Some analysts believe that China may insist on a renewal of trade terms as a condition for supporting sanctions. The Clinton administration says that such a trade-off is not under consideration.

Early last month, the State Department hailed as "very good news" North Korea's agreement to allow the international inspectors back into the country to ensure that the regime isn't using its declared nuclear facilities to divert fuel or develop weapons.

Limited visits

But North Korea's view of what was needed to accomplish this and the atomic agency's turned out to be vastly different.

North Korea has not agreed to the list of tasks the inspectors say are necessary and has tried to limit the scope of inspections sharply.

Its stance is propelling the atomic agency toward referring the matter to the Security Council later this month.

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