THE death of North Korea's President Kim Il Sung leaves much at stake, not least of which may be the health of the relationship between the United States and China.
If Pyongyang decides to proceed with its ominous nuclear program, the drive for United Nations sanctions would resume, ending a welcome hiatus that China and the West have enjoyed since the sanctions effort was temporarily suspended last month.
The sudden relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, in the wake of former President Carter's talks with Mr. Kim, has averted for the moment a potentially serious crisis between Washington and Beijing.
When the nuclear-inspection standoff with North Korea reached critical proportions in late May, President Clinton backed away from his earlier threats to terminate most-favored-nation trading status for China and instead announced he would renew it. The White House assumed that Beijing would reciprocate by openly supporting US-led efforts to organize UN sanctions against Pyongyang. Instead, much to Mr. Clinton's chagrin, the Chinese continued to withhold support and discourage the efforts.
Even worse, Beijing seemed dangerously close to lining up behind Pyongyang in defiance of the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The visit of a senior North Korean military officer to Beijing in the midst of the crisis elicited China's open declaration that the two communist countries remain ``as close as lips and teeth.'' This reiterated Mao Zedong's lethal alliance with the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. Serious doubts were raised about whether China would support and enforce UN sanctions against North Korea, even if an embargo was approved by the Security Council with China abstaining.
China's open defiance of the UN and the US would have created a serious rupture in its relations with the West, and almost certainly would have resulted in a major political backlash from Washington. In fact, impatience with China has surfaced within the administration and on Capitol Hill in recent days.
Legislation is headed for the floor of the House of Representatives that would revoke the president's renewal of MFN; it could claim a simple majority, though a veto-proof margin is doubtful. Moreover, the US Trade Representative's office declared China a Special 301 ``priority'' violator of intellectual property-protection guarantees. In June, the Senate approved legislation holding Beijing accountable for missing US servicemen held as POWs in China during the Korean War.
So long as meaningful dialogue proceeds between US and North Korean diplomats when talks resume, tension between Washington and Beijing will ease. Should these fragile communications break down, however, US-China camaraderie may be a victim of the resumption of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. The awkwardness of the situation for China is apparent: By having full diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea, as well as a historic military alliance with Pyongyang that is counterpoised by strong trade ties with Seoul, Beijing is caught in the middle. Increased hostility between the two Koreas would give no advantage to Beijing and would seriously jeopardize China's harmony with the US. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.