It was not immediately clear what prompted Mr Clinton's gloomy comments to a group of reporters at the White House last night. They do underline, however, that after North Korea's latest proposal to allow United Nations inspectors into some but not all of its nuclear bases, Washington's hopes of a negotiated solution are fading fast.
According to the President, the US has examined 'all possible contingencies' and still clung to the hope that agreement could be reached. 'I hope we are not headed towards a full-blown crisis. I hope we can avoid one, but I am not positive that we can.'
At talks between officials of the two countries at the UN last Friday, the North Koreans offered to make five of the country's seven nuclear sites available to inspection. But the two installations that arouse most suspicion - the nuclear reactor and nuclear reprocessing facility at Yongbyon - would remain effectively off limits.
In addition, the right of UN inspectors to visit the installations would only be granted if Washington and Seoul called off 'Team Spirit', the joint military exercise scheduled for next spring, and if the US set a precise date for talks with North Korea on closer economic ties and on possible diplomatic recognition.
After consultations over the weekend, and a high-level White House strategy session on Monday, both Washington and Seoul declared the North Korean proposal to be insufficient. US officials now warn that time is running out. 'I am confident that if, God forbid, any kind of conflict should come, we could do what we need to do,' Mr Clinton said.
The US position remains that Pyongyang must accept inspection by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency of all seven sites, and resume talks with the South on establishing the entire Korean peninsula as a nuclear weapon- free zone. If not, Washington is brandishing the threat of economic sanctions.
Such a step, however, is strongly resisted by Seoul, which fears any extra pressure might only drive an isolated and virtually bankrupt North into desperate military action. According to the Pentagon, North Korea has long been strengthening its forces close to the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas, only 25 miles (40km) north of Seoul.
Hitherto the US has been applying a carrot-and-stick policy, insisting that the North must comply with the Non- Proliferation Treaty but offering economic and diplomatic rewards if it co-operates. However, the US administration is unsure to what extent the North is bluffing in order to extract concessions.Reuse content