UN Chief Asks China to Help Ease Nuclear Impasse in North Korea

China may decide it needs US trade more than ties to Pyongyang

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali arrived in China yesterday to pressure Beijing to broker an end to the standoff over North Korea's alleged nuclear-weapons program.

In a meeting with the secretary-general, Chinese Premier Li Peng said he opposed using sanctions to force North Korea to accept inspections of its nuclear sites, preferring dialogue instead.

Western analysts, who consider China the key to North Korea's economic future, suggest Beijing could be persuaded to intervene and help strike a compromise in the stalemate over inspections of North Korea's nuclear sites in exchange for a softer American tone when Washington debates renewing Chinese trading privileges in June.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali's visit to Beijing follows a stop last week in North Korea where both sides described talks as ``warm and cordial.'' The Pyongyang regime, however, said that UN mediation of US-North Korean talks, offered by the secretary-general, was not needed, according to North Korea's official Korea Central News Agency.

Instead, North Korean negotiators criticized the UN as a belligerent participant in the truce that ended the 1950-53 war on the Korean peninsula, UN sources said.

North Korean President Kim Il Sung told the secretary-general that ``positive signs'' already were appearing in the talks over allowing inspections to military-related nuclear facilities. Western diplomats suggest that Pyongyang may be easing its resistance to opening all nuclear sites to UN review.

Last March, North Korea announced that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it refused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to two sites suspected of being nuclear material processing facilities. The United States has been pushing the UN to impose sanctions on North Korea's devastated economy to force compliance with IAEA demands.

The Korean news agency quoted Boutros-Ghali as urging that the nuclear issue, as well as the reunification of North and South Korea, be resolved through negotiations. China, North Korea's longtime ally, has been pushing countries on the UN Security Council to ease their confrontation with Pyongyang. Beijing has hinted it would veto a UN resolution imposing a trade embargo on the country.

Last month, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution urging North Korea to ``cooperate fully'' with the IAEA, China abstained, signaling support for its prot, which has in the past acted as an intermediary in China's arms export trade.

Western diplomats say the issue of trade sanctions poses a major dilemma for Chinese foreign policy. Beijing is worried about being seen as abandoning North Korea which, like China, is one of the few remaining Communist regimes.

But China also does not want to take on the other four permanent members of the Security Council by opposing a sanctions vote. Such a stance would tarnish its hard-won international recognition since the days of isolation following the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests.

Vetoing an embargo would also put at risk Beijing's market-style economic development and endanger improved relations with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which might consider expanding their own nuclear programs if North Korea crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.

``China could be forced into taking a stance it has struggled for months to avoid,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing.

Some Western analysts suggest the crisis could end with a compromise involving China's most-favored-nation trade status. Last June, President Clinton agreed to extend China's trading privileges on the condition that it improves its policies on human rights and arms control and openness in investment and trade.

By certifying that China has made progress in resolving these US concerns, Mr. Clinton might win Chinese acquiescence in not vetoing a UN embargo imposed on North Korea. That stance would signal an about-face for Beijing, which for years has kept the struggling North Korean economy afloat with oil exports and food. Since normalizing ties with South Korea last year, China has phased down its economic role in sustaining Pyongyang.

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