Why Clinton Can't Use A Big Stick On North Korea

The Clinton Administration is nearing a moment of truth on whether, and how, to stop North Korea's nuclear-weapons buildup. Some U.S. hawks are urging President Clinton to get tough in a hurry after the International Atomic Energy Agency threw up its hands and on Mar. 21 referred the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

But supporting quick U.N. economic sanctions against North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung and rattling U.S. sabers aren't likely to work. Those gambits could even backfire, possibly triggering military conflict involving the 37,000 GIs in South Korea. To make matters worse, Washington's ties with Asian powers that hold the real keys to an eventual settlement, particularly China, are strained. Even South Korean leaders, who are most likely to be hurt by Pyongyang's nuclear buildup, are wavering on how Washington should proceed.

What does the 81-year-old Kim really want? With his plans to transfer power to his son in doubt and his backward economy falling further behind, brandishing the nuclear threat seems to be Kim's last, best chance to win economic assistance and diplomatic recognition from the U.S. and Japan. Even in the midst of the nuclear showdown, for example, he is seeking foreign investment in the Tumen River area.

Few Asia-based analysts believe sanctions, even if they could be enforced, would deter the old man from using the nuclear bluff to win economic gains and recognition, thereby saving his regime. Says an aide to South Korean President Kim Young Sam in Seoul: "Kim Il-Sung wants survival."

IRON GRIP. To avoid tripping, Washington will have to watch an intensive round of diplomacy now taking place among China, Japan, and South Korea. Those talks suggest that the North Korean threat is playing into China's hands. China's leaders hold the strongest cards because they supply Pyongyang with oil, food, and some military technology. The stultifyingly oppressive Kim regime also makes Beijing look positively democratic in comparison and reminds the Americans just how important the Chinese are strategically.

Despite public assurances from senior Administration officials to the contrary, the Chinese are in no mood to go meekly along with U.S.-inspired sanctions against a longtime ally, diplomats in Beijing say. That's doubly true now that the Chinese are engaged in a public war of words with the U.S. over human rights and most-favored-nation trading status.

The Chinese also would likely extract a high price in exchange for any help. Beijing diplomats speculate that China would demand admission to the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade this year or that the U.S. put an end to the annual debates over its MFN status. Another plum might be U.S. support for allowing Beijing to host the Olympic Games in 2004. "The Chinese are definitely aware of the diplomatic potential of North Korea," says a Western diplomat. Any of these deals would pose an agonizing choice for Washington: trading its high moral ground on human rights in China for nuclear deterrence in North Korea.

SECRET PATHS. Unless the Chinese get what they want, there is no way the other U.N. powers can make sanctions stick. The Chinese border with North Korea runs through mountainous territory, and South Korean sources say China could allow goods to pass through indefinitely with the outside world scarcely the wiser.

Despite its own trade strains with Washington, Japan seems more likely to go along with U.N. sanctions, at least officially. But Tokyo probably wouldn't be able to stop the estimated $600 million that flows to Pyongyang from Japan each year. Most of that hard currency, the North's major source of financial support, comes from the pachinko, or pinball, industry controlled by North Korean residents of Japan. Koreans carry cash on frequent visits to the homeland, evading Japanese controls.

Even the South Koreans are proving difficult to read. On the one hand, Seoul is supporting military measures, including rescheduling the Team Spirit military

exercises with the U.S. and deploying 192 Patriot missiles. But on the other hand, some top Korean analysts are privately appealing to the U.S. to strike a deal with Kim, giving him billions of dollars and allowing him chaemyun, or face-saving. The reason: They don't want the North to collapse, forcing them to undertake an expensive German-style unification. With those kinds of conflicting signals from Seoul, the Americans are at risk of getting out ahead of their South Korean allies.

Overall, the Asians seem to agree that a waiting game is better than sudden confrontation. That allows Pyongyang to pursue its buildup, but the Asians are betting Kim will die and his government will collapse before the North builds a full arsenal and the missiles to deliver those weapons.

If the Americans provoke a confrontation that their Asian allies don't support, it would badly undermine U.S. diplomacy, already reeling in the region. Rather than making North Korea a quick test of decisive U.S. leadership, Clinton may have little choice but to adopt Asian-style patience in dealing with one of the world's potentially most explosive standoffs.


CHINA Supplies energy and food to North Korea but would extract a high price in exchange for pressuring Pyongyang

JAPAN North Korean residents in Japan provide largest flow of hard currency to Pyongyang

SOUTH KOREA Wants to stop the nuclear buildup but doesn't want to risk a North Korean collapse

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