U.S. to seek sanctions on N. Korea

June 03, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration declared yesterday that it would seek United Nations economic sanctions against North Korea after the world's nuclear watchdog agency concluded that the Communist regime had blocked efforts to learn the scope of its nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. step elevated the long-simmering Korean crisis to a new level of tension. North Korea has already declared that it would consider any imposition of sanctions an act of war. The north-south border, monitored by tens of thousands of U.S. troops, has long been on hair-trigger military alert.

President Clinton was forced to act to make good on his administration's previous threats. For days, U.S. officials have been saying that, if North Korea made it impossible for inspectors to probe the history of its nuclear program, the United States would seek sanctions through the U.N. Security Council. Yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that North Korea had done just that.

In a statement issued from its headquarters in Vienna, the agency said that North Korea's rapid discharge of fuel from its experimental nuclear reactor "has now made it impossible to select fuel rods for later measurements, which would show whether there has been any diversion of fuel from the reactor in the past years."

State Department spokesman Mike McCurry, traveling with Mr. Clinton in Rome, said the United States would ask the Security Council to impose economic sanctions.

A U.S. official predicted last night that it would be "some days" before a sanctions resolution emerges from the Security Council.

The prospect is uncertain in any case. China, which has veto power, still opposes confronting North Korea with sanctions now. Its position remains unchanged despite Mr. Clinton's decision last week to renew its most-favored-nation trading status.

Russia, another Security Council member with veto power, proposed yesterday an international conference on North Korea instead of moving quickly to impose sanctions.

Mr. Clinton said North Korea had only itself to blame if sanctions are imposed.

"They have triggered this, not the United States or anyone else," he said.

U.S. officials plan to meet in Washington today with their closest Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. An informal Security Council meeting is set for this afternoon, when IAEA Director General Hans Blix is expected to brief its members.

Administration officials have said that sanctions, if agreed on, would be imposed gradually and would not begin with a full-scale blockade.

The crisis is focused on North Korea's nuclear-weapons development in the late 1980s.

The IAEA wanted to examine selected fuel rods being extracted from North Korea's nuclear reactor. By examining these rods, they could ascertain whether the regime had diverted nuclear fuel after the reactor had been temporarily shut down in 1989.

There is no evidence that North Korea is trying to add to its nuclear stockpile.

In fact, U.N. inspectors have told the IAEA that the spent fuel from the reactor is being placed in cooling ponds, where it can be monitored to make sure any diversion doesn't occur.

U.S. intelligence analysts have long believed that North Korea diverted enough fuel when the reactor was last shut down to make one or more nuclear bombs.

What is now at issue is the ability of world nuclear inspectors to determine what weaponry North Korea possesses.

This has broad implications for their being able to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.

The danger, voiced by Japan and South Korea, is that sanctions would further isolate North Korea and prompt it to sever all contact with international inspectors.

This, in turn, would make it impossible for inspectors to monitor what North Korea does with the spent fuel now being discharged from its reactor, once the fuel cools and could be reprocessed into weapons-grade fuel.

North Korea's rapid discharge of fuel from its reactor marks what U.S. officials see as a new level of defiance intended to keep the West in the dark about its nuclear program.

Although North Korea's army is considered no match for the combined forces of the United States and South Korea, a military reaction from the North could pose a dire threat to South Korea's capital, Seoul, which lies close to the border.

"We have taken prudent defensive measures to ensure that we are prepared to fulfill our security commitment to the Republic of Korea," a senior administration official said last night.

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