TOKYO — IT is growing increasingly clear that the Clinton administration will have a much harder time assembling a concerted international front on the North Korean nuclear issue than former President Bush did in confronting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters yesterday that his government is ``not in favor of the involvement of the United Nations Security Council in this issue.'' The statement was the clearest indication yet that Beijing will not be shaken from insisting that concerns over North Korea's alleged nuclear-weapons program be solved through dialogue.
At the same time, a North Korean threat gave the Japanese new cause for concern. If Japan joins in UN sanctions, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch monitored here, North Korea ``would regard it as a declaration of war, and Japan would be unable to evade a deserving punishment for it.''
The United States has said since June 2 that the Security Council should impose sanctions on the North for impeding international inspectors from trying to determine whether the country has diverted radioactive material from a reactor to a weapons program.
Since then, diplomats have been crisscrossing the globe, holding discussions on what sort of sanctions might be imposed on North Korea and at the same time win the approval of China, which holds a veto on the Council. Beijing is North Korea's last important ally and says sanctions would only make conflict on the Korean Peninsula more likely.
US officials, notably Defense Secretary William Perry, have suggested that the US might try to pressure North Korea outside the UN framework, perhaps in concert with Japan and South Korea. But the Japanese are growing more uncomfortable with talk along these lines.
Japanese discomfort poses another problem for the US, because Japan is one of the few countries that can actually do something to hurt North Korea. There is a modest amount of trade between the two countries and Korean residents here send a steady flow of money to the North.
Accurate estimates of these funds are impossible to obtain, but figures range from $600 million to $1.8 billion a year. North Korea's economy has declined precipitously in recent years as the number of allied Communist states has dwindled, and the money from Japan is one of the country's few sources of hard currency.
Like China, Japan has repeatedly insisted in recent months that the standoff over North Korea's nuclear intentions be resolved without confrontation. Last weekend, after the US called for sanctions, Tokyo leaked a list of actions it would be prepared to take against North Korea, including cutting the flow of funds.
But yesterday, even as China made its reluctance to support sanctions clearer, a Japanese government official involved in North Korea policy said that Japan only wanted to take these steps in the context of a broad international response.
``Japan may become reluctant,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, ``if certain proposed actions don't seem to consolidate international solidarity.'' Referring to the current international negotiations, he added: ``The overriding objective of this exercise must be to get [China's cooperation].''
Although Japanese Foreign Minister Koji Kakizawa said last weekend that Japan would consider taking part in a non-UN effort led by the US, officials in recent days have been loathe to repeat the statement. On Tuesday Foreign Ministry spokesman Terusuke Terada refused to even acknowledge Mr. Kakizawa's comment.
``It's much, much better for us to talk about an international response,'' the government official said, than to discuss what would happen if the UN could not agree on sanctions. He argued that economic sanctions would only be effective if many countries participated, especially China. Otherwise the money that now goes directly from Japan to North Korea could be diverted through a third country.
Officials here are also worried that Japan's Korean population, particularly the 250,000 or so thought to support North Korea, would react harshly if sanctions were imposed. Part of this concern is humanitarian, the official said, because restricting people from sending money to their families could be construed as a violation of human rights. But in the case of a confrontation, officials here do not deny that they are worried about a violent internal backlash.