WASHINGTON -- President Clinton stepped up efforts yesterday to increase diplomatic pressure on North Korea by calling it "virtually imperative" that the world community impose economic sanctions on Asia's nuclear renegade.
With British Prime Minister John Major by his side during a D-Day appearance in Portsmouth, England, Mr. Clinton sought to quell talk of armed conflict, saying sanctions were "clearly . . . not an act of war and should not be seen as such."
But North Korea's ambassador in Beijing, Chu Chang Jun, repeated warnings yesterday that "any kind of economic sanctions" against North Korea would be regarded as "a declaration of war."
In Washington, the United States, Japan and South Korea greeted new evidence of North Korea's nuclear bomb-making activity with a unified call for economic sanctions.
The allies ended two days of talks yesterday warning of "a serious situation" in North Korea caused by Pyongyang's efforts to thwart inspections designed to determine how much plutonium North Korea possesses.
U.S. diplomat Robert L. Gallucci, flanked by a South Korean ambassador and a senior official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, said the three countries agreed that the United Nations Security Council must "urgently consider an appropriate response, including sanctions" to bring North Korea to heel.
And in Seoul, South Korean government officials met in an emergency session yesterday and set up a task force to assess national readiness. President Kim Young Sam said that U.S. and South Korean forces "are keeping a round-the-clock surveillance the North's [military] movements" and added that the two allies "are fully prepared and have enough military power ready to meet any emergencies."
The United States has about 36,000 troops and an array of sophisticated weaponry, including Patriot anti-missile batteries, stationed in South Korea, the Associated Press reported.
The latest swirl of rhetoric and diplomacy came two days after the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix, told members of the Security Council that North Korea had shifted spent fuel rods inside its principal nuclear reactor in ways that would obscure any efforts to use plutonium to manufacture nuclear bombs.
The disclosure deepened suspicions about North Korea's nuclear intentions and added urgency to international efforts aimed at halting the nation's nuclear program.
Clinton administration officials have said that, in light of Mr. Blix's testimony, Pyongyang should allow IAEA inspectors to take samples and measurements at the nation's two major radioactive waste sites. That would give inspectors an alternative to analyzing spent fuel rods as a means of accounting for North Korea's weapon-grade plutonium.
"All we want them to do is keep their word," Mr. Clinton said yesterday. "There's still time for North Korea to avoid sanctions actually taking effect . . . but this is in their hands."
Washington hopes to escalate pressure on North Korea gradually in an effort to persuade the Pyongyang government to let inspectors in. If Pyongyang still refuses to yield after an initial tightening of trade, the allies would press for a freeze on North Korea's financial transactions and, finally, for a cutoff of oil and food supplies.
Clinton administration officials acknowledged yesterday that negotiating a sanctions strategy that would both pinch North Korea and win the support of reluctant allies has proven a difficult and delicate task.
In an effort to win international backing for sanctions, the United States has pressed high-level contacts with Russia, as well as with China. The opposition of either country could veto any bid to tighten sanctions on North Korea.
Both have been reluctant to go along with sanctions until further diplomacy has been tried. But Clinton administration officials said they have seen hints of greater flexibility from both countries.