North Korea: Why Asia Is So Calm As Sabers Rattle In Washington

If anyone should be fretting over the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea's Kim Il-Sung, it's the citizens of Seoul, just 25 miles from the demilitarized zone. But as war talk flew fast and furious in Washington, it was just another carefree Memorial Day holiday in the city's Myong Dong shopping district. "We Koreans don't think the situation is as dangerous as Clinton believes," said civil servant C.H. Park, 29, over the din of disco and rap music from trendy boutiques. Added a salesman walking arm in arm with his wife: "Why does the U.S. always try to interfere in our affairs?"

The Americans are suffering a sharp perception gap with not only the South Koreans but also the Japanese and Chinese about how to respond to Pyongyang. Under pressure at home to come up with a foreign policy victory, the Clinton Administration has succeeded in getting a reluctant Japan and South Korea to support gradual economic sanctions--at least officially. China, however, is still signaling that it will use its clout in the U.N. Security Council to stall, or perhaps veto, such a measure.

Even if Clinton can push sanctions through, they won't have real teeth. That's because the Asians have nurtured a web of economic, political, and transportation links with the North, and they see those ties as helping to guarantee stability. Moreover, they reckon Kim Il-Sung is too far along with his nuclear program to be dissuaded by sanctions. So Asian strategists are resigned to North Korea's becoming the second nuclear power in East Asia, after China.

STORIES OF HUNGER. All three neighbors regard that as a lesser evil if the alternative is war or the chaos that could result from the collapse of Kim's regime. Despite shrill rhetoric from President Kim Young Sam, the South Koreans don't want a confrontation that might produce massive flows of refugees. And they don't want to pay for a German-style reunification. What's more, the Asians are betting that even if Pyongyang has a few bombs, it won't be able to turn them into warheads on missiles.

In the end, the South Koreans don't believe Pyongyang wants a war. A Gallup poll in mid-May found that 60% of South Koreans think the North has nuclear weapons or will get them soon. But less than 12% believe there is "much danger" the North will provoke a war. They think a much likelier scenario is the gradual collapse of Kim's regime. That impression has been supported by a steady trickle of refugees telling stories of hunger and unrest back home.

Japan is surprisingly relaxed as well. "Not many of my constituents feel a sense of crisis," says Hajime Funada, an influential Diet member from Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata's Japan Renewal Party. North Korea is not seen as a big enough threat to warrant a change in Japan's constitutional ban on nuclear arms. Influential newspapers are urging Hata to go slowly on sanctions, and the leading opposition party, the Democratic Socialists, opposes them altogether.

Japan also has a sizable, potentially restive population of pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans. Japanese bureaucrats may be able to pressure a few banks into tightening up on the flow of an estimated $600 million a year these ethnic Koreans send to Pyongyang--but they can't stop it. In any event, the Koreans would still be able to carry cash into the North via boat and airplane.

SHARP CONTRAST. China is in the best position to influence Pyongyang. But since Beijing has spent the past year warning Washington not to hit China with economic sanctions, it doesn't want them applied against a fellow communist regime. In fact, China has been quietly expanding economic ties with the North. China now provides a quarter of North Korea's oil, and two-way trade totaled $900 million in 1993, up 50% from the prior year, according to South Korean sources.

So while some U.S. analysts think China will abstain on U.N. sanctions in exchange for Clinton's decision to renew most-favored-nation trade status, that's not how it appears in Beijing. The Chinese "don't believe sanctions would be effective" and won't support them, says a Western diplomat.

The long-term, Asian-style approach stands in sharp contrast to the desire for a quick show of force by some in Washington. "You've got to stand for something," says a Defense Dept. official. "If you're serious about nonproliferation, you can't let this go." Washington hard-liners, such as former U.S. Ambassador to China James R. Lilley, argue for deploying more military might, including aircraft carriers.

From the South Korean perspective, raising the risk of violence is exactly the wrong thing to do. With mounting evidence of severe shortages of goods, fuel, and hard currency in the North, Seoul strategists view Kim's bomb as a desperate attempt to push Washington into granting diplomatic recognition and economic aid. "We are witnessing the last phase of a totalitarian system," says Lee Suh-Hang, an analyst at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs & National Security. The Asians believe they can afford to wait for that to happen. Their real question is whether the U.S. will provoke a crisis nobody wants.