THIS week, the United States and its allies begin what is likely to be a slow yet inexorable move toward economic sanctions on North Korea.
The UN Security Council could begin discussions about possible censure of Pyongyang over its clandestine nuclear program as early as today. President Clinton said over the weekend that he expects the United Nations eventually to approve some sort of North Korea strictures.
But China remains a wild card in the equation. As a Security Council member, Beijing could veto any action, and despite hints that Chinese officials are unhappy with their North Korean ally, they continue to insist publicly that sanctions won't solve anything.
Starting with symbols
The US might skirt this barrier by proposing to begin with basically symbolic UN measures. Or it could simply act outside the UN framework in concert with Japan, South Korea, and other willing nations.
``We are going to proceed firmly on this,'' Mr. Clinton said in a TV appearance. ``I hope and believe the UN will do it. If it doesn't, then we'll look at who else wants to do it and what else we can do.''
Japan has drawn up a draft list of possible bilateral actions against North Korea. This includes restrictions on cash transfers to North Korea from North Korean nationals living in Japan; a ban on Japanese-North Korean trade; and restrictions on cultural, scientific, and sports exchanges between the two nations.
Yet Japanese Foreign Minister Koji Kakizawa told the US last week that Japan favors an initial UN resolution containing a direct warning to North Korea before taking any punitive actions. South Korea has also indicated that it wants the UN to set an explicit deadline for Pyongyang to allow international nuclear inspectors unfettered access.
The situation has now reached a fateful stage because Pyongyang continued to unload fuel rods hastily from an experimental nuclear reactor over the weekend.
With virtually all 8,000 rods now withdrawn, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix has determined it is impossible to measure whether nuclear material was ever diverted from the reactor, for possible weapon use.
The uptick in tensions has caused tougher rhetoric to fly on both sides of the dispute.
An official North Korea statement said ``sanctions mean war and there is no mercy in war.'' Senate Minority Leader Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas said he would support a US military buildup in East Asia so that the North Koreans ``understand this is serious business.''
Secretary of Defense Wiliam Perry said a preemptive strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities is still an open option. But he, as well as Clinton, played down talk of war and said the US was not yet involved in a military showdown.
Against this background Republicans stepped up criticism of the Clinton administration's actions on North Korea. Former Secretary of State James Baker III said that the US should have sought a UN sanctions vote long ago.
``I'm not sure that the North Koreans understand how seriously we take the fact that they're not willing to abide'' by non-proliferation treaty inspection standards, Mr. Baker said in a television interview.