Confrontations with North Korea, China threaten Clinton policy on Asia

March 23, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Confrontations with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions and with China over human rights threaten a keystone of President Clinton's foreign policy.

More than any other recent president, Mr. Clinton has stressed the United States' interest in Asia, touting the region's economic growth and expanding markets as an engine of U.S. prosperity and of high-skill, high-wage jobs.

Now, in a remote but no longer impossible scenario, Washington could risk a war on the Korean peninsula, loss of the world's fastest-growing market in China and aftershocks in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Pacific.

Both crises grew out of a desire by the Clinton administration to delay confrontation and rely on diplomacy. Mr. Clinton is being tested by adversaries ready to exploit domestic political weakness or division between the United States and its allies.

The administration has held out the promise of improving ties between North Korea's Communist regime and the West in return for North Korea's giving up its nuclear ambitions and surrendering any nuclear material it might have produced. The United States endured a year of frustration based on two assumptions that are now in doubt.

One was that North Korea would "stop the clock" on its nuclear weapons development while engaged in talks with the United States.

The watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency declared Monday that it could not certify that the clock had stopped. Its inspectors found that a seal had been broken at North Korea's most sensitive nuclear site. And in what the agency says was a premeditated move, North Korean authorities blocked inspectors from taking radioactivity samples.

The second assumption was that the Clinton administration had to show North Korea's neighbors, especially China, that it had exhausted diplomatic routes before turning to pressure from the United Nations.

But China remains a question mark. Its premier, Li Peng, said yesterday, "If pressure is applied on this issue, that can only complicate the situation on the Korean peninsula, and it will add to the tension there."

The effort to move in tandem with North Korea's neighbors may not have been wise, says Douglas Paal, an aide to President George Bush who now heads the Asian Pacific Policy Center. For domestic and other reasons, South Korea, Japan and China need the United States to adopt a tougher posture toward North Korea than they have. China could then find it easier to mediate between North Korea and the United States, he said.

As the Korean confrontation escalates, North Korea will be watching how the United States deals with its other Asian crisis -- the clash with China over human rights.

Last year, in a deal with Congress, Mr. Clinton extended China's beneficial most-favored-nation trade status for 12 months, on condition that China make human rights improvements as spelled out in an executive order. The administration hoped that diplomatic pressure and a dialogue with China on other issues would change its policy.

Now, Mr. Clinton faces a double bind. The arrest of Chinese dissidents and rough treatment that greeted Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher on his recent trip to China will make it harder to persuade Congress that China is complying with both the letter and spirit of the president's executive order.

And internal administration dissent over the policy tells the Chinese that they may get away with ignoring the order.

Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific and an architect of the policy, said yesterday that whether China cooperates "depends on [U.S.] discipline and domestic unity. We need to have as much unity here as possible."

Mr. Lord acknowledged that China's loss of favored trade status would hurt the two countries' overall relationship. But he and other administration officials deny that the Chinese would be less likely to cooperate on North Korea if they lost their favorable trade status.

"They're not doing us a favor," he said, arguing that China shares the United States' interest in preventing a nuclear buildup in North Korea.

Some outside experts argue otherwise. James Lilley, ambassador to China in the Bush administration, said the relationship could sour to the point where the United States would lose access to the senior officials with whom it charts Korea policy.

Even if China acquiesces in sanctions against North Korea, its relations with the United States could determine whether it complies with them. China is a grain and oil supplier to North Korea. Much as it wants to see the peninsula nuclear-free, it doesn't want to undermine North Korea's ability to function "as a socialist ally," says Gerrit Gong, director of Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The extent of China's cooperation, in turn, will affect how Congress votes on trade status, Dr. Gong said.

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