SEOUL — AS the international standoff over North Korea's alleged nuclear- weapons program reaches another crisis point, the countries involved are scrambling for an appropriate response to North Korean intransigence.
The United Nations Security Council was expected to meet today to consider the North's latest refusal to comply with international inspectors seeking to determine if the country has withdrawn plutonium from a nuclear reactor in order to build a bomb. The North denies any intention to build nuclear weapons.
Japanese and US news organizations, citing intelligence sources, have reported in recent days that the North is planning to test its medium-range missile, the Rodong 1, which reportedly can hit targets in western Japan.
No country, of course, is more directly affected by the prospect of a nuclear North Korea than South Korea. With or without the bomb, the North's formidable, million-man Army has threatened this country for decades.
Yesterday, South Korean officials asked the United States not to resume high-level talks with North Korea unless the Communist state allows full nuclear inspections.
The South, however, does not set the global agenda on the issue in the way the US does in its role as the remaining superpower and unofficial enforcer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Despite a close relationship between Washington and Seoul, many South Koreans are frustrated with US leadership on the nuclear issue. And given the US commitment to this country during the Korean War and in the years since, people in positions of power and influence here do not criticize the US government lightly. Almost every complaint is prefaced by praise for the US.
While South Korean academics, politicians, and former government officials interviewed here in recent days tend to offer the same critique of US policy - that until recently it has been contradictory, erratic, and at times overly hawkish - there is less agreement on what should happen next to dissuade the North from its suspected ambitions.
South Korean liberals favor a soft, ``big carrot'' approach: offering the North diplomatic recognition and economic aid and then solving the nuclear question later. Once the country feels more a part of the international community, they argue, it will abandon any nuclear-weapons program it might have started.
Hard-liners here agree that aid and recognition should be granted the North - but only after it has proved that it is not developing nuclear weapons.
The liberals suggest that the US, Japan, and South Korea could pursue the soft approach on their own. But no one here says that the US should back up the ``hard'' approach with an American stick - such as a move to impose sanctions outside the framework of the UN.
US Secretary of Defense William Perry suggested in Tokyo last month that if the US were unable to obtain Security Council support for sanctions, presumably because of a Chinese veto, the US, South Korea, and Japan might seek to impose some sort of non-UN ``multinational sanctions.''
The criticism of US policy as contradictory derives from differing assessments of North Korea emanating from the US government. ``I'm a little confused about American involvement in North Korea,'' says Lee Sei Ki, a ruling party member of the National Assembly, ``and whether their position is hard or soft.''
Several of those interviewed noted that President Clinton, on a visit here last summer, vowed he would never allow North Korea to develop a bomb. That was just months before US intelligence officials said they believed the North had already assembled one or two nuclear weapons.
Even those most sympathetic to Washington say the Clinton administration has had to climb a steep learning curve in handling the North Koreans - a nice way of saying US officials have not known what they were doing, at least not at first.
``Washington was not the easiest part of the puzzle that South Korean policymakers had to deal with,'' says a former senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Less-than-diplomatic US statements do not sit well in Seoul. Secretary Perry, says Cho Se-Hyung, a National Assembly member who belongs to the opposition Democratic Party, ``has a big mouth, talking about war too much sometimes.''
South Korean advice on North Korea, however, needs to be taken with a grain of salt because of several conditions that govern the South's perceptions:
* South Koreans have bitterly mixed feelings for their estranged northern brethren. The debate runs like this: They are our Korean brothers and sisters. They are our Communist enemies. Brothers. Enemies. And so on.
* Nearly everyone here believes that the Korean Peninsula will eventually be unified under an essentially South Korean government. So talk of intentionally worsening North Korea's already dire economic situation through sanctions also means increasing the work for a unified Korea.
Liberals in particular worry that officials in Washington and Seoul seem to think that the regime of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung can be brought down over the nuclear issue. But they worry that such a collapse could force unification too quickly, hurting the South Korean economy by saddling it with an impoverished North, or give rise to an even more militaristic regime in Pyongyang.
* A third reality is that no matter how much anyone in the South rails against the North acquiring nuclear weapons, what South Koreans really abhor is the possibility of going to war over the issue.
``That's a very confused approach,'' acknowledges Kil Jeong-Woo of the Research Institute for National Unification, who is a former diplomat, ``but we do not have many options.''