In Washington yesterday, Mr Clinton, after meeting Kim Young Sam, the South Korean President, said economic sanctions are 'not a particularly attractive option'. The two leaders discussed a gradual approach to defusing the crisis over North Korea's potential to make a nuclear bomb. Mr Clinton said that, if North Korea abandons the nuclear option, 'the door will be open on a wide range of issues'.
If North Korea allows limited inspection of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, the US and South Korea would suspend - though not cancel - their annual joint military exercises, named Team Spirit, next spring. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants to find out if the Koreans have produced more plutonium from their reactor than they have admitted.
President Clinton did not spell out what incentives he was prepared to offer North Korea if it agrees to allow its nuclear facilities to be inspected. South Korea's President Kim was expected to oppose significant concessions and Mr Clinton denied he was softening the US stance. North Korea wants a package deal whereby, in return for wholly abandoning its nuclear programme, it would get diplomatic recognition by the US and an end to the economic restrictions which have been in place since the Korean war.
The urgency stems from the fact that the IAEA is moving closer to declaring that it is no longer sure that North Korea is not making a bomb. The US would then be under pressure to call for action by the UN Security Council. But this, in turn, would only be effective if supported by China, which is Pyongyang's only influential friend, and diplomats say the Chinese are at present not willing to do this. Even if Peking could be persuaded to withhold its veto, Japan and South Korea fear sanctions might push the North Koreans into a corner and make them even more irrational.
The Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have both wanted to exert pressure on North Korea and emphasise the threat from its conventional forces. The White House and the State Department feel only significant US concessions will tempt the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear option.
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