ENDING a four-nation East Asian swing through the world's last cold-war frontier, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said yesterday that North Korea can still be persuaded to resolve the crisis over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
The UN secretary-general said that, on his visit to the North just before a two-day stop in China, he found ``the political will to avoid an escalation.''
Following disclosures in Washington by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that North Korea may already have crossed the nuclear weapons threshold, Mr. Boutros-Ghali admitted that the UN is now only watching from the sidelines, but he urged all sides to keep talking to avert confrontation.
The Boutros-Ghali mission to Japan, North and South Korea, and China does not appear, however, to have produced any progress in resolving the nuclear stalemate.
While there had been expectations that he would urge Beijing to intervene more forcefully or to compromise on the issue of imposing trade sanctions against Pyongyang, the UN chief said he had not asked China to play a more assertive role in defusing the crisis.
Last March, North Korea announced it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rather than allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN agency, entry into two sites suspected of being nuclear material processing facilities.
The US has urged the UN to impose a trade embargo on North Korea to force Pyongyang to open all its sites for nuclear inspections.
One of five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Pyongyang's only remaining ally, China, has signaled that it would veto any trade restrictions; it stood by that position during the Boutros-Ghali visit.
``We hold that the denuclearization of the peninsula should be achieved properly through dialogues and consultations, instead of imposing pressure,'' said Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, as quoted by the New China News Agency after his meeting yesterday with the UN official.
``We believe that more progress will be made toward this end so long as the four sides [the United States, North Korea, South Korea, and the IAEA] maintain their patience and continue to show flexibility and constructive attitudes,'' Mr. Qian said.
The UN secretary-general refused to comment on news reports that the CIA has told the Clinton administration that it believes North Korea already has one or two nuclear weapons by saying, ``I am not a military expert.'' The report has raised concerns in Asia that the US will push the UN for a tougher stance against North Korea.
But China is anxious to avert a UN showdown, which could force Beijing to back its longtime Marxist allies in North Korea and risk its broadening economic ties with South Korea, Japan, and other neighbors in Asia as well as its crucial trade with the United States.
Mr. Qian, the Chinese foreign minister, said that talks between North Korea and the US ``have created an initial framework for future negotiations, and that the two sides are moving closer,'' according to the New China News Agency.