THOUGH major hurdles and risks still lie ahead, the US is pressing forward with its plan to persuade the United Nations to impose sanctions on North Korea for refusing to open nuclear sites to international inspection.
The United States proposal, which will be submitted to the UN Security Council this week, is expected to begin gradually with curbs on cultural exchanges and UN technical assistance, and a possible arms embargo.
Though Council action may be weeks away, US officials in Washington and at the UN say they are confident of ample support. They expect China, despite its protests that sanctions may aggravate the crisis, to abstain rather than veto the proposal. (China's `positive' role, Page 4.)
Tougher economic sanctions affecting China's oil exports to North Korea and the export of hard currency from North Korean workers in Japan to relatives back home would come into play only later, if North Korea continued to defy nuclear inspectors.
The US has been getting broad input for its resolution in bilateral talks here with Security Council member nations and overseas. Diplomats from the US, South Korea, and Japan held talks in Washington a week ago and in Seoul this past weekend. Russia also is closely involved. Its proposal for an international conference on the issue will be mentioned in the resolution.
The aim of the graduated sanctions is less to punish North Korea than to try to keep it a complying member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Both the US and Pyongyang want to launch a long-awaited third round of negotiations, taking up such issues as economic aid and diplomatic recognition. Yet US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright says certain conditions must be met first. The talks cannot be a ``freebie'' for North Korea, she says.
The move to sanctions carries risks. North Korea has said that any embargo would amount to a declaration of war. Pyongyang has threatened dire consequences for South Korea, Japan, and any others who even vote for sanctions. Pyongyang also has recently threatened to withdraw from the NPT altogether.
The US, which insists it is not intimidated by the threats, considers North Korea's defiance of the NPT's inspection rules a bad example for other would-be nuclear-weapons producers, and one that simply had to be challenged.
``To have North Korea withdraw unilaterally is one thing - that's not good - but to have it in total violation of the rules and get away with it is even worse,'' says William Taylor, an international security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has visited North Korea four times. ``I think the US is picking the lesser of two evils.... We've run the course properly, and I don't think we have any other option.''
Yet George Totten, an East Asia expert at the University of Southern California, argues that it is somewhat ``hypocritical'' to make North Korea a test case when other nuclear nations such as Israel, India, and Pakistan are not even signatories to the 164-member NPT. ``North Korea should not be demonized,'' he says.
Until now, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, has largely concentrated its criticism of North Korea on a point of history. The agency contends that by recently removing and scrambling fuel rods from a reactor shut briefly in 1989, North Korea has made it impossible for outside experts to tell if nuclear fuel was diverted for weapons' use.
Yet the IAEA's present capacity to ensure that discharged fuel is not being diverted to weapons production may also be affected.
THE IAEA board of governors voted June 10 in Vienna to condemn North Korea for violation of the NPT's safeguards agreement and to suspend technical aid. Yun Ho Jin, North Korea's envoy at the meeting, then told reporters that the IAEA's two remaining inspectors in North Korea would have to leave.
Yet as of this writing, the expulsion has not been confirmed. US officials claim they are encouraged by the strength of the IAEA vote (28 board members voted for the measure with only Libya voting against) and by China's decision, along with three other nations, to abstain.
What they need now, diplomats and analysts say, is to find ways to keep the door open for dialogue while still supporting the world effort to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Each stage of UN sanctions is expected to specify what needs to be done to resume talks aimed at a negotiated settlement. Private diplomacy, such as former US President Jimmy Carter's trip this week to North Korea at Pyongyang's invitation, could play a constructive interim role.
``I think if we actually get to [strong economic] sanctions, we [could] probably dig in for a very long haul,'' comments Alan Romberg, an Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. ``North Koreans do not respond well when they are cornered.... They respond pretty well when they are cornered with a reasonable way out, at least as perceived by them.... Both sides have an obligation to look at the situation and see if we can't, consistent with each of our sets of principles, step back from the current impasse and find a constructive way out.... It's very important to keep on trying.''