China firm on rejecting N Korea sanctions

The South Korean Foreign Minister, Han Sung Joo, returned home from Peking empty-handed yesterday after failing to win Chinese support for sanctions against North Korea. He was told that China still views negotiations as the only way to ease the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

In Washington, nervousness about the Korean crisis continued to grow. A senior State Department official predicted that Japan and Russia would go along with sanctions against North Korea, but conceded that China's support was highly uncertain.

Addressing a congressional hearing yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci said UN consultations on possible sanctions were likely to continue over the next few weeks, implying that no immediate action would be taken. He dismissed fears that Japan was having second thoughts about endorsing sanctions, but said Peking's stance was 'more complicated and difficult'. The best Washington can hope for, observers believe, is Chinese abstention in any Security Council vote on sanctions.

In Istanbul, meanwhile, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said after a Nato foreign ministers meeting he expected sanctions to go ahead, whatever China's misgivings. The US was proceeding 'firmly and deliberately' towards securing sanctions, 'and I think they can be achieved'.

Even without Peking's assent, pressures are building in Washington for measures against Pyongyang. The House of Representatives voted 415-1 in favour of sanctions, while the former Secretary of State James Baker said the US should put together an ad hoc coalition of allies ready to impose them. Last weekend, Defence Secretary William Perry hinted Washington was ready to move in that direction.

North Korea remained intransigent yesterday, warning Japan that it could not escape punishment if it backed sanctions, which Pyongyang said it would regard 'as a declaration of war'. The South Korean Defence Minister, Rhee Byong Tae, said the North's forces were at their highest level of readiness since 1990, when there was a brief thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula.

The United States is leading efforts in the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea's hardline Communist regime, which has prevented inspection of its nuclear facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear arm, says obstruction of its inspectors means it is now impossible to determine whether Pyongyang has concealed plutonium for possible use in nuclear weapons.

The IAEA's governing council, meeting in Vienna, is expected to vote today to withdraw all technical assistance for North Korea's civil nuclear industry, apart from medical aid. The resolution was reported to be backed by 18 of the 35 governors, including four of the five permanent Security Council members - the US, Russia, Britain and France - as well as Japan.

Last year North Korea threatened to quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which it is obliged to accept international inspection. It later suspended its withdrawal, but now claims 'special status' - or what one Western diplomat referred to as 'a la carte membership of the NPT' - allowing it to decide whether to allow or prevent inspections. The draft IAEA council resolution, obtained by news agencies, says North Korea 'remains a party to the Treaty . . . and is therefore bound by its safeguards obligations'.

China remains the most important opponent of sanctions, however, both in the IAEA and the Security Council. After South Korea's Mr Han met his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman repeated that Peking did not agree with sanctions, and that such moves 'would only push the parties into confrontation with each other'. He added: 'China believes that in seeking a solution there are two very important points - patience and time.'

As North Korea's most important ally and trading partner, China could have a pivotal role to play if it still has the power to influence Pyongyang. But Peking will not even say whether President Jiang Zemin raised the nuclear issue earlier this week when he met the visiting North Korean Army Chief of Staff, Choi Kwang.

(Photograph omitted)