Defusing the Korean Crisis

March 25, 1994

With the Korean situation at danger point, the United States should signify its willingness to take part in a special international conference whose underlying purpose would be to make the peninsula nuclear free. All permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus the two Koreas and Japan, should take part.

Such a move would bring China into the central role it has to play if the danger of war is to be defused. Beijing has good reason to be concerned not only about conflict on its border but the distinct possibility that Japan would re-arm strategically if confronted by a nuclear North Korea with missiles capable of reaching its home islands.

Such a dramatic U.S. initiative would give elements in North Korea a face-saving way of withdrawing from a provocative policy that has led to a year-long standoff with International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to inspect the Communist regime's nuclear facilities. All the big nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia and China -- have a common interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons by maintaining the integrity of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. With an international conference, they could eliminate previous positioning that has prevented full big-power cooperation.

Should China use its influence to prod North Korea into compliance with United Nations rules, this would give the Clinton administration an opportunity to shed its feckless attempts to impose its own human rights values on China by threat of trade sanctions. Washington could then put its priorities where they belong: on nuclear questions that directly affect U.S. security interests.

South Korean President Kim Young-sam is visiting Japan and China right now in an effort to build a new Asian consensus for economic sanctions if necessary. Koreans in Japan are a source of scarce hard currency for Pyongyang. China provides 75 percent of North Korea's oil, plus other commodities. It also has built up flourishing commerce with South Korea. So the Asian web of interests could be an effective instrument in easing tensions.

To bring all the Asian players into a conference with the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France would give North Korea some of the international recognition it craves, but in a context where it would be under terrific pressure to stop threatening war or building a nuclear force. This might be a more promising route than the fruitless approaches of the past year.

So far, U.S. policy toward Asia has been fragmented rather than integrated, perhaps reflecting the mind-set of a president distracted by Whitewater and only spasmodically focused on foreign affairs. If Mr. Clinton steps forward boldly, this would do much to preserve peace in a land where 33,000 Americans died in the 1950s war.

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