U.S. priorities in Asia

March 25, 1994

Japan and South Korea have no trouble making the connection between China and North Korea. As the Communist regime in Pyongyang threatens war and defies international efforts to close down its nuclear weapons program, the leaders of our two key allies in East Asia are making the pilgrimage to Beijing to seek China's help in controlling the situation. Too bad the United States did not follow the same course instead of exacerbating relations with China over human rights.

The Clinton administration at least is not letting North Korea's provocations push it to a quick showdown. It will send Patriot defensive missiles to protect Seoul, but these weapons are going by slow boat. And it has no timetable for joint military exercises it plans with South Korean forces.

All this is a play for time to let United Nations resolutions isolate Pyongyang and to give China a chance to work its will on its obstreperous ally. When Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa visited Beijing last weekend, he emphasized his "grave concern" over nuclear tensions, which could impel his own country to turn to nukes. Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng's next visitor will be South Korea's President Kim Young-sam, who wants Beijing's assistance in warding off a war scare.

China's response will be closely watched. Mr. Li has said he would make "great efforts" to improve ties with Washington. But in his talks with Mr. Hosokawa he stated his preference for persuasion rather than sanctions, and said cryptically that it is "important to give North Korea what it wants."

HTC What it wants, according to U.S. experts, is to leap over South Korea to establish direct relations with the U.S. and thus insure its independence (a course that did not help East Germany). By threatening to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and rebuffing the International Atomic Energy Agency's attempts to inspect its nuclear weapons labs, North Korea has gotten world attention. But in doing so, it has set itself up for deserved international censure and potential economic sanctions.

With President Clinton due to decide by June whether to sever normal trading relations with China as punishment for its human rights violations, he is suddenly making overtures to Beijing, saying he is "very impressed" with Chinese attempts to dissuade North Korea from developing its nuclear options.

Perhaps the president is at last getting his priorities straight. He too should make "great efforts" to repair Sino-American relations so these two big powers can work together to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.

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