THE Clinton administration is moving into deep waters on the North Korean question. But with patient resolve, it can negotiate them. North Korean noncompliance on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, after a provocative year of gamesmanship with the United States, finally put the White House into negotiations with allies South Korea and Japan for sanctions on Pyongyang.
North Korea, which has steadily raised the stakes in its game of brinkmanship, is responding with threats, severe rhetoric, and is reportedly withdrawing from the UN inspections regime. Sanctions will be treated as ``an act of war,'' Pyongyang says.
Washington, which has 36,000 troops in South Korea, is at another impasse. President Clinton does not want to precipitate a crisis far hotter than what is immediately at stake. At the same time, the administration cannot now back down and further damage its own credibility.
A White House proposal for ``phased sanctions'' is a tactic that all sides, particularly Toyko and Seoul, can buy and may help keep the crisis ``cool.'' It is more ``face saving'' for the regime of Kim Il Sung since it phases in economic pain very slowly and contains many carrots if North Korea decides to cooperate.
What is ``immediately at stake'' in the North Korean issue is the most impenetrable question. Washington should not force Pyongyang deeper into a hole.
Some argue that Mr. Clinton acted too quickly on North Korea last fall, forcing Mr. Kim to ask, ``Why us, why now?'' and to react defiantly. Yet with the nuclear dimension, the issue is not one of the imperial West picking on or demonizing a small country. Rather, the question is under what terms Washington should intervene when it calculates that a state that has isolated itself from international dealings is creating a hidden nuclear program that may constitute a significant threat in five or 10 years. Sanctions will not stop a nuclear-weapons program. Even the ``carrots'' of aid to North Korea the White House is offering can be questioned. Buying the peace from North Korea may suggest that the way for an isolated country to become a normal member of the world community is to threaten other states with war when they attempt to hold it to international standards.