THE Clinton administration has been patient to a fault with North Korea. The world's most isolated and repressive regime has shamelessly toyed with the international community for 12 months in a game of nuclear hide-and-seek. But its latest rebuff - not allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to take plutonium traces crucial to a verification process from a North Korean reactor after painstaking UN negotiations - ought to be the last straw.
North Korea should not be allowed to exist indefinitely half in and half out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - cutting deals it does not deliver on, asking for enormous political concessions and aid from the West in exchange for a return to a status it should already be in, and, yes, buying time to actually develop or even refine a nuclear device or devices. The IAEA is ready to report formally what has in fact been known for months - that North Korea can no longer be verified as a nonproliferation state. Actually, two US intelligence agencies already say that North Korea has a bomb.
White House credibility is now at stake. President Clinton should move with alacrity to push for sanctions on North Korea; the IAEA yesterday asked the Security Council to act. Diplomatic efforts on Pyongyang have had a worthy goal; yet North Korea has taken advantage of the White House's willingness to engage in ``dialogue.'' Sanctions, and a resumption of military exercises with South Korea, would show that our carrot-laden diplomacy has a stick, and an end-point.
Some say relations with China, which can play a constructive role in Korea, are unbearably strained over human rights issues after Secretary of State Warren Christopher's trip there. Not necessarily so. China is simply playing power politics with Washington, betting the US will not ruin its China trade over a single issue. If that is true, and it probably is, the US should use that diplomatic capital to insist that Beijing lean on North Korea. Realpolitik is not ideal; but if the White House is withdrawing from a strong leadership role in the world, that is the game others will play and the US must face that truth.
Diplomatic eggs in the White House basket should not distract from certain basics: that North Korea may be a pirate nuclear state and potential proliferator. An obvious point not much mentioned is that impoverished North Korea rejected IAEA inspectors last week even though it stood to gain so much by a clean bill of health - billions in aid, reduced tensions, better regional relations, and so on. It's enough to make one wonder if they aren't hiding something.
It is illogical for Pyongyang to want a war. But the possibility must be considered and punitive measures taken accordingly.