The China Card with North Korea

March 19, 1994

From both sides of the Pacific, from Seoul and Washington, comes word that patience with North Korea is wearing thin. The latest maneuver by that Stalinist regime has been to thwart inspection of its suspected nuclear weapons program by agents of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- this despite undertakings that seven of nine locations would be open. If the IAEA reports to the United Nations Monday that Pyongyang is once again in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States should seek a Security Council demand for compliance by a specific date or North Korea will face the consequences.

Just what these consequences will be does not have to be officially spelled out at this time. But in concert with South Korea, the U.S. can reactivate joint military exercises, ship Patriot missiles to beef up Seoul's defenses and strengthen the American military presence, now 37,000 strong.

These steps, however, are unlikely in themselves to cause North Korea to budge. If international pressure is to be effective against that paranoid nation, there needs to be a severe economic boycott to hasten the collapse of the regime. Achievement of that goal, both in terms of Security Council action and implementation of a boycott, will require the close cooperation of China.

Unfortunately, China and Washington are wrangling over the administration's ill-conceived attempt to force the Beijing regime improve its human rights record or face the cancellation this June of normal trade relations -- a step harmful to both nations. In the context of North Korea's attempt to break into the nuclear club, this dispute could not have come at a worse time. It hinders the U.S. and China from pursuing their common interests in a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.

Yet out of adversity sometimes comes opportunity. In this case, the United States could break its unwise linkage between trade and human rights by giving pride of place to Sino-American cooperation in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. This would be in accord with repeated administration statements that non-proliferation is its highest priority. And it would permit this country to pursue a sensible trade policy with China.

President Clinton said last year that this country will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. But a year of diplomatic frustration has revealed a pattern in which North Korea makes agreement after agreement only to obstruct implementation while South Korea and Japan shy away from confrontation. Since the U.S. can hardly be more belligerent than its two allies nearest North Korea, the realistic alternative would be to turn to the one country -- China -- with ideological and economic leverage (i.e., 75 percent of oil supplies) on North Korea.

Does the Clinton administration have the guts and imagination to execute this gambit? We can hope; we do not have confidence.

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